Half way through the period that the proposers of Becket Keys allocated for their “consultation” I contacted the Department for Education (DfE) to clarify what those responding to it could expect to see in terms of output. In particular, I wanted to understand how responses would be presented to the DfE and how the accuracy of them could be guaranteed.
The response that I received on the 23rd April, three days after the consultation period had closed, only served to add to my concerns about the transparency, and indeeed the point, of this process. It may also serve to explain why the Russell Education Trust (RET) have made such little effort to engage the local community. As the response illustrates, they simply don’t have to.
The e-mail is reproduced in full below:
“Dear Mr Mayo,
Thank you for your email of 3 April regarding Free School consultations. The Department does not publish reports or the results from consultations carried out by Academy Trusts about their Free Schools.
Academy Trusts are required under Section 10 of the Academies Act 2010 to consult with those they think appropriate in relation to entering into a funding agreement with the Secretary of State to establish a Free School. The funding agreement is the formal legal agreement between the Secretary of State and the Academy Trust that sets out the obligations on both parties in respect of the individual Free School.
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.
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.
In most cases Academy Trusts make their consultation results public, usually on their website and you may wish to contact individual Academy Trusts direct to find out the latest position regarding their consultations and how the findings will be presented.
Free Schools Group”
If I interpret this correctly, the DfE are actually saying that it is entirely up to free school proposers to present whatever information they see fit. There is no independent activity to verify that this is an accurate picture of responses received. There is no guidance on how the community is to be consulted or to what degree they have to be engaged.
And yet we are told that the Secretary of State has to consider the degree to which the proposers “have met their duty to consult”. How exactly? From information provided by the proposers. Which we do not get to see.
On the 27th April, the RET announced on the Becket Keys facebook page and Twitter account that:
“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.”
This is not yet reflected on their website as I write and no report is visible there yet either but given the DfE response, it is easy to understand the confidence of the proposers that the school will be given final approval. This may also explain comments such as that attributed to Karen Lynch of the RET who described consultation as “just a hoop to jump through”.
However it does not excuse the contempt for the Brentwood residents with which the Becket Keys proposers conducted their consultation. Even if there is no formal guidance on how to conduct the consultation, it does not demonstrate any willingness to be accountable to the local community.
The impressive turnout for our Open Meeting on the 18th April proved that Brentwood wanted to be engaged. The refusal of anyone from the RET or Becket Keys to attend was noted by many as further evidence of their attitude.
We have had communications, written and in person, from many people who are disturbed by what this may indicate for the future governance of the school and its place within the community.
Prospective parents have contacted us worried about the lack of information about the RET and the actual position for those holding two offers for September. People broadly sympathetic with the establishment of a secondary faith school are concerned about how the RET approach reflects on the Chelmsford diocese. Despite statements made to the contrary, negotiations continue on what parts of what is currently Sawyers Hall College will be used by Becket Keys and how this fits with other users of the site.
The RET had a fantatsic opportunity to clarify the position on all these points. They had a chance build relationships with the local community. They could have reassured tax payers that they would provide best value for state money. They could have demonstrated that they were the experts in education that they claim to be.
If the Secretary of State really wants to assess whether the proposers of Becket Keys “have met their duty to consult” then I suggest he asks the local community properly. He can start by visiting our site.