What are the point of "free school" consultations?

Stephen Mayo's picture
The proposers of a "free school" in our town have just completed what they describe as a consultation into whether or not they should enter into a funding agreement with the Secretary of State for Education.

Yesterday the following was announced on Twitter and Facebook:

"Becket Keys is pleased to confirm that as a result of the consultation it is our intention to enter into a Funding Agreement with the Secretary of State. The full consultation report will be published next week."

Would they ever have done anything else?

The truth is that the group behind this proposal, the "Russell Education Trust", did as little as they could legally get away with during this process. They provided no consultation documentation specific to their proposal. They refused to hold any public meetings. They even refused to answer questions.

I am a member of a group called Educating Brentwood that was set up earlier this year, inspired in part by LSN, concerned with promoting accountability in our local schools. We challenged the free school proposers to provide a fully open consultation and, in the end, we set up an Open Meeting to allow the local community to air their views and ask questions ahead of the closure of the consultation period.

The "standing room only" response to the meeting proved that there was great interest in the future of education in Brentwood. Along with parents and residents we had a strong cross-party presence of local councillors. Four headteachers attended and there was an excellent representation of school governors. We were also delighted to receive a statement for the event from John Fairhurst, who had been a long serving local secondary head teacher until his retirement in 2010 at which point he became National President of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

Despite repeated invitations, no-one representing the "free school" proposers attended.

But why would they? Correspondence I have had with John Hudson of the DfE's Free Schools Group

"As the duty is on the individual Academy Trust, it is for the Academy Trust to decide how it wishes to conduct the consultation, analyse the responses it receives and communicate the outcome to interested parties. "

He goes on:

"One of the factors taken into account by the Secretary of State before entering into a funding agreement is the extent to which an Academy Trust has met its duty to consult. Often Academy Trusts submit a report to the Department on the consultation process and findings to assist the Department in coming to this decision, but the Department is not prescriptive on what such reports should include and how the consultation is carried out. "

If these "consultations" really do mean anything then I would invite Mr Gove to visit our blog site to assess whether this "duty" has been met in this case.
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Richy Thompson's picture
Sat, 28/04/2012 - 23:53

Surely Free School consultations should at the very least mean that which is set out here: http://davidwolfe.org.uk/wordpress/archives/268

Note in particular my and David Wolfe's comment exchange at the end! I wonder whether the whole process is open to challenging...

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 29/04/2012 - 07:29

Thanks, Richy, for the link to David Wolfe's blog. I share the concern that "consultation" about a proposed free school comes too late in the process. Any such consultation should take place when evidence of demand is being measured. A further point is that this evidence of demand should be collected by a third party which has no interest in the outcome. Baroness Walmsley raised this in the House of Lords:


Stephen Mayo's picture
Sun, 29/04/2012 - 10:03

Richy, Janet, Many thanks for the links, both are very useful. They also underline my fear that these exercises are an attempt to claim that the community has been involved in the decision to establish a free school when, in fact, the granting of initial approval by the Secretary of State, and the budget that this provides, makes it a fait accompli.

The attempted establishment of the Beccles Free School is a test case in my opinion. The "consultation" period was constructivley used by those opposing it to raise a petition and highlight the probable knock on effect to the existing secondary school. A lively edition of Any Questions and the opposition of Conservative council and MP showed that the community had very serious misgivings about the proposed free school. If a funding agreement is agreed in that case I really won't see the point of "consultations" at all.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 29/04/2012 - 10:34

The adjudicator of the disagreement between the proposers of Beccles Free School and locals opposing the free school, Rob Cawley, has now been appointed executive principal designate for Beccles Free School and Saxmundham Free School. Mr Cawley was hired by the Seckford Foundation which is behind the proposed free schools.

This raises serious misgivings about the independence of the adjudicator.
According to TES, the consultation document went to the DfE in January but will not be made public until after Lord Hill decides whether to allow the school to open.

Every week that passes brings more unease about the free schools programme. These include inducements to complete forms; concerns about evidence of demand; narrow “consultations”; recruitment practices, including hiring proposers as principals; outsourcing the entire running of a school to a profit-making organisation; doubts about whether many of the free schools actually serve the disadvantaged children that they were supposed to help; lack of transparency, and propaganda using inflated application figures.

We can now add the appointment of possibly biased people to the post of adjudicator – a post which is supposed to be impartial.



Emma Bishton's picture
Sun, 29/04/2012 - 11:32

I entirely agree. And the fact that free school proposers appear to be free to extend their view of 'the community' to 'the area from which pupil registrations may come' allows them to present evidence of demand from an area far larger than a traditional catchment, and to essentially ignore the views of the communities that would be most affected by the proposals.

Adam's picture
Sun, 29/04/2012 - 10:47

The point of Free School consultations (and Academy consultations) is to give the casually interested the impression that a rigorous and democratic process has taken place and to raise awareness of change. They are certainly not intended to weigh up the arguments in order to reach a consensus or inform opinion.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 30/04/2012 - 11:32


The point of Free School consultations.... is to give the casually interested the impression that a rigorous and democratic process has taken place

No, not really.

The reason these consultations are held is to conform to the law.

During the passage of the Academies Act 2010 through the Lords, opponents of the bill put down an amendment requiring consultations to be held.

Whether there was ever any genuine point to the amendment, er whether it was simply an attempt to derail/delay the legislation by forcing the bill to go ping pong between the Commons and the Lords, I do not know.

In the event, the Government thought it best not to allow itself to be distracted, and therefore simply accepted this pretty meaningless and pointless imposition.

Therefore, you shouldn't be asking supporters of free schools or the government why this fatuous process is going on - they never wanted or asked for it.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 30/04/2012 - 12:22

Ricky -

I presume that you are a voluntary or paid spin doctor for the Coalition, so perhaps you might be good enough to clarify how you know that the government thought it best not to allow itself to be distracted from a meaningless and pointless demand for consultation (or transparency) and agreed to this amendment?

I am not entirely surprised, given your position, that you consider the consultation process "fatuous" but it is an indication of the government's contempt for public opinion that they should go through the motions of consultation without really taking much notice of any outcomes if the results are not to their liking.

The government's obssession with pushing through their ideology, at the cost to the British public and to the greater benefit of the most wealthy who support, financially or politically, the Conservative party, is why the latest polls show the Tories losing a lot of support. As the disastrous economic policies kick in and the double dip recession claims more victims, the public is seeing with greater transparency that the government is made up of ministers whose sense of entitlement in running the country is concerned with looking solely after their own and this extends not to just to the City but to pandering to the Murdoch empire to ensure that his monopoly on the media (now thankfully shot down, thanks to the good work of real investigative journalists at The Guardian) will guarantee a second term in office for Cameron and his "posh boys" (the words of Nadine Dorries', Conservative MP, - not mine).

Gove is not known for consulting. Or transparency. He made no effort to consult with the teaching profession over his "reforms" and, even more damaging, he, his department and his SPADS have been conducting ministerial business via private emails. One of them, urged colleagues to use their gmail accounts rather than official departmental emails. He is also alleged to have told a senior civil servant, “New Schools Network is not giving out to you, the media or anybody else any figure on ‘expressions of interest’ [from people wishing to set up free schools] for PQs [parliamentary questions], FOIs [Freedom of Information requests] or anything else. Further, NSN has not, is not, and will never answer a single FOI request made to us concerning anything at all.’

Conspiracy theory? I doubt it. The Information Commissioner takes it seriously enough to be investigating whether the private email accounts were intentionally used to conceal government business and information from public and civil service scrutiny.

David Cameron promised a “transparent government” in his election campaign, yet everything Gove and his department does contradicts this, so thank you for confirming that the government only accepted the consultation clause in the Bill to rush through the bill and never took it seriously.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 30/04/2012 - 14:32

David Cameron promised a “transparent government” in his election campaign, yet everything Gove and his department does contradicts this...

.... like publishing 400% more data, listing ministerial meetings, etc.?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 30/04/2012 - 16:14

Properly systems of accountability Ricky which involve designated people who are responsible systems in education.

Numbers are great for validation but they must not be used as substitute for proper formal processes of verification. In other words you can use numbers to check systems are doing what you expect them to be doing but somebody needs to understand what they systems are and how they will respond to attempted changes and that seems to be what Gove lacks. Numbers are strong addition to - not a substitute for knowledge and understanding of systems.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 30/04/2012 - 16:20

Like the lack of financial info re academies in School Performance Tables; like Cameron's refusal to order an inquiry into whether Hunt broke the Ministerial Code; like the tardiness surrounding the publication of free school funding agreements; like the lack of info re free school "evidence of demand"; like the use of private emails for government business; like the refusal to publish why free school applications were refused; like making academies exempt charities so that it's just that little bit more difficult to find out information about them; like the slow response to FoI questions which ask for evidence...?

And the list of ministerial meetings was only published after intense pressure was put on the PM to publish.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 30/04/2012 - 21:02

Ricky -

That doesn't amount to transparency does it, when he promised so much in his campaign then, once in office, it all turned opaque? And he was under immense pressure to publish - they were hardly handed over willingly.

The secret emails, the Mrs. Blurt emails, the arrogant and authoritarian diktat from Dominic Cummings openly encouraging officials to conceal information or to refuse to abide with the public's right to information and Henry de Zoete deleting emails - such concealment and lack of transparency is breathtaking in its contempt for democracy.

Had the government listened to the public, it would still be giving the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt. But time's been called. Two years in and voters are fed up with the excuses that BSF was expensive, that Labour left the economy in ruins, that education was "broken". The reason that polls show a big slump for Cameron is because voters, pinched and broken by unemployment, a failed economy, a two tier school system, are realising that the government has been pulling the wool over their eyes, with the talk of "choice", "big society" and "autonomy". What Gove and the posh boys have been doing is pumping out a lot of smoke and mirrors whilst lining their pockets, looking after their own and brown nosing Murdoch and his dubious executives.

Cameron and his minister cronies from Liam Fox to Osborne, Hunt to Gove are looking increasingly like a bunch of self-entitled chinless wonders caught with their hands in the jar, ready to hand out the cookies to their friends and business associates, while the rest of the nation is left to eat bread, if only they could afford it.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 30/04/2012 - 16:38

Like the ending of engagement with the processes of consultation for education policy?

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