Why the Brentwood Gazette article on the “Russell Education Trust” is important

Last Wednesday evening (4th July), Kathryn and I attended a meeting, arranged the previous week, along with approximately forty parents of children at St Thomas of Canterbury Junior School, regarding changes to the process for those intending to take the 11+ and also secondary school admissions policies. The latter part focussed on the well documented dropping of feeder schools from the admissions policy of the proposed Becket Keys Church of England School and was presented by Richard Elms, the “project” representative of Russell Education Trust (RET). It was the first time I had been in a room with Mr Elms and the encounter was very illuminating.

Yesterday (11th July), the Brentwood Gazette published a two page article and accompanying editorial that outlined the extent to which the RET will financially benefit from running Becket Keys. Explicitly, and with an estimated illustration of how much money this could amount to, for the first time the paper made clear to the wider Brentwood public that the motivation of the private company may not match that of the proposal’s initial supporters or the Church. It also made clear that public money that would have been allocated to existing schools will instead be diverted to the RET.

As the editorial concluded:

“However one looks at it – public money designated for children in Essex is going into private hands”

The two page article, written by Piers Myler, is reproduced here (click to enlarge), a link will be posted to the on-line version once it is available:

The school is due to open in eight weeks time and, even though a funding agreement has still yet to be finalised, it is very unlikely not to do so. So why is it important that the Gazette chose to publish this information now?

  • Because the taxpayers of Brentwood and Ongar deserve to know how and why state money is being allocated.

Sawyers Hall College (SHC) closes this month because, following a wide ranging consultation, it was agreed that there are not enough secondary aged children to sustain the current number of schools in Brentwood. Against this background a new school has been proposed that will be granted state money, a reported 4% of this will be taken by a private company. In order to provide this money, per pupil resource will effectively be diverted from the existing school that the child would otherwise have attended.

  • Because prospective parents need to be clear about the motivation of those running the school.

The Gazette editorial is right to acknowledge that the RET appear to have been key in gaining approval for the Becket Keys free school proposal. This has caused the original vision to move accordingly and for claims to be made that appear difficult to substantiate.

Faced with two opposing bids for use of the SHC site, they changed the original proposal to one that was to serve North Brentwood and even claimed “the advantage of Becket Keys is that it will be local school [sic], serving its own community with all of its students able to walk or cycle to school.” We now know that the net is being cast far wider, one contributor on Facebook has this week enquired about bus services from Basildon.

From the point of view of the RET the priority is to get a school approved and opened, thus securing funding for their business. The Gazette points out the significance of growing a chain of schools for those who can draw salaries from them.

Prior to receiving initial approval, one of our members was told by one of the proposers that the RET was a charity run by Christians. As Mr Elms openly stated in the meeting last week, he is an atheist. The RET’s existing free school is not a Church school. Mr Elms also stated that he believes that Becket Keys will never have an intake which includes as many as 50% of children who applied on the basis of faith. Which again seems at odds with the stated purpose of the proposal.

I would like to be clear that I do not oppose Becket Keys because it is a faith school, that would be sheer hypocrisy, and I also acknowledge that there are parents who would like that choice in the town. My central objection has always been that the potential effect of establishing such a school on existing provision in a town with surplus secondary places is far too high a price to pay. Either children in existing schools will suffer through lack of resource or the new school will eventually fail and the pupils there will pay. This position seems to me to be incompatible with Christianity.

The introduction of a private company, the RET, into the mix heightened my concern, and this has only grown as the PR has hidden an unwillingness to engage the local population and to provide any reassurance about the motivation for their involvement.

Mr Elms continues to insist that Becket Keys “will be an outstanding school”. Why wouldn’t he? He has a school to promote. If we say something will be the case, it must transpire surely? However, as I pointed out to him in the meeting, on that basis, based on what I say, West Ham will win the Premier League this season.

  • Because some of the money allocated to the school will not be used to resource it.

As underlined in the Gazette, just because the RET is “not for profit” it does not mean that money cannot be diverted to it from that allocated to the school. Not only can they pay themselves (set at levels of their own choosing) but they can pay other companies, who are operating for-profit, for their services, including, for example, Education London.

Current headteachers, SHC’s Stephen Capper and St Martin’s Mike O’Sullivan illustrate this point clearly within the article. The Gazette has managed to extract an admission of a figure of 4% of funds, it will be important to check what this covers when accounts are published in the future.

  • Because the RET need to understand that by taking public finance they must be publically accountable for it.

The Gazette reports that it took “many requests” before the RET would reveal this figure and provide a statement. They also illustrate this lack of openness via a quote from Louise Greenbaum of the Stop Kings School campaign which is against a current RET proposal for a free school in Hove.

This will be nothing new to followers of this blog. When the RET were supposed to be consulting the local community they refused to answer our questions:

“Becket Keys will not be answering questions from Educating Brentwood” http://wp.me/p2dr6s-6N

When we enquired about their suitability to run a school and handle public funds we were stonewalled. So we tried hard to track down information ourselves:

“The search for information on Becket Keys backers” http://wp.me/p2dr6s-75

When I responded to their “consultation” they left out any reference to concerns about their credentials from their two page “report” to the Department for Education.

“Becket Keys consultation report does not accurately reflect responses received” http://wp.me/p2dr6s-8c

What the RET don’t seem to grasp is that public money must be accounted for and those receiving it have to be open to public scrutiny as a result. Their approach serves only to increase suspicion about their motives and the validity of the claims they make for the school. My fears were not eased by the performance of Mr Elms last week.

By presenting this information to Brentwood residents and the wider community, the Gazette have ensured that none of their readers can plead ignorance about the basis of the free school in future. It also means that the town’s parents have a clearer picture of the school’s likely governance prior to its opening.

Brentwood will be paying and residents deserved to be informed.

Stephen Mayo

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Comments

  1. It’s good that the Gazette has started asking questions. Shame they didn’t do so months ago, before the “consultation” took place.

    Reply
  2. Thorough and informative. Thank you. We must all try to hold these companies to account, and help our fellow tax payers to understand the real motivation of these opaque companies getting involved in public education. The sooner the destructive, wasteful, muddle-headed and divisive Free School policy is abandoned the better.

    Reply
    • Many thanks for your comment Nigel. As Christine states in her comment, it is good to see those behind free schools being the subject of scrutiny in the press, nationally and locally now. It would have been helpful to us in Brentwood if this had started sooner but nevertheless the coverage is important for the reasons stated in this post.

      Reply

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