And now it’s over to parents…

In common with all parents of ten year old children in Essex, this morning we received our invitation to select our preferences for a secondary school for September 2013 entry. We will have to make our selections before the end of October but will take the opportunity in the meantime to assess the likely options for our son. After an extraordinary eighteen months, the choice offered for residents of Brentwood and Ongar will differ from previous years.

Yesterday (31st August 2012) was the final one for Sawyers Hall College (SHC). The closure was agreed following a wide ranging consultation that Essex CC conducted in 2009 in conjunction with local schools and the wider community. The difficult decision to close the school recognised that secondary pupil numbers were too low to sustain five schools to serve Brentwood’s five parishes. The plan agreed a staged transfer of pupils to Shenfield High School (SHS) while ensuring a path to GCSE and A level exams for relevant students. The second part of the plan was to establish a facility on the SHC site in 2012 to provide much needed vocational educational options for Brentwood’s children. Our page, “The Facts: “The Future of Sawyers Hall College” – 2009 Consultation” provides the full details.

Part one of the plan has been superbly executed by the staff, parents and governors of SHC in conjunction with SHS. The transition of pupils has been very well handled as we learned first-hand from our guest blogger Ben two months ago (Guest Blog: “The closure of Sawyers and the transition to Shenfield” ). I understand that the governors have managed to minimise the cost of closure by effective asset sales and the effect on Essex CC budget will be within expected boundaries. And, as covered by the Brentwood Gazette, GCSE and A level students have been able to focus on their exams. Link to “Strong results to complete the ‘best school closure ever’” is below

Stephen Capper and his team deserve huge credit for these achievements. I wish him and his staff the very best for the future.

So what of the vocational establishment that was meant to take the place of SHC? As we are all well aware the intervening period since 2009 has seen this denied. Instead the Secretary of State for Education appears to have decided to allow another school to take its place. According to their website, Becket Keys Church of England School formally opens today (1st September). The Funding Agreement is reported to have been waiting for Mr Gove’s signature on Thursday although there has been no public confirmation that this took place as I write. We also have no idea why the nature of school funding has been agreed so precariously close to opening or what that means in terms of the requirements it is supposed to cover. That will become clearer in the coming weeks no doubt.

What we can all be clear about is the basis for the decision to approve the school and those making it must be made accountable for the consequences. The 2009 consultation has been ignored. As impact assessments have not been revealed, we don’t know if the statutory duty to judge the potential effect on Brentwood’s existing schools has been met. A two page “consultation report” has apparently been seen as sufficient to grant state money to a private company whose lack of transparency and reluctance to engage the town’s residents backs up the concern voiced last month in Private Eye (“RET, and Becket Keys, come to the attention of Private Eye” ).

On Wednesday 5th September the first students will begin their secondary school career at Becket Keys. I wish them well and hope they meet their full potential in five years time and beyond. The development of a proposal that would deny the town the chance to meet its vocational educational needs was nothing to do with them. The decision to engage an opaque private company with no local ties was not theirs. They are not responsible for the apparent denial of the Church of England’s Chelmsford diocese about the potential effect on other schools despite the 2009 evidence. They haven’t presented evidence to the Department for Education on the local make up of the school’s intake and then admitted children from “over 20 schools”. Others will have to answer for that and they are the ones who must now make good on the numerous promises that have been made to secure support and approval.

It will be some time before Becket Keys can be properly judged on the same criteria as other schools, the first GCSE results will not be available for five years, but the oft stated pledge that it “will be an outstanding school” can only be judged when Ofsted have visited. Following apparent national policy this won’t be for at least two years. We will have to rely on the PR of the “Russell Education Trust” in the meantime no doubt.

Now that we are amongst those having to make the decision on where to send our child, it is reassuring that the past year has seen an impressive set of GCSE and A level results in the schools most local to us. St. Martin’s and Brentwood Ursuline have maintained their consistently high exam performance and Brentwood County High School and SHS have matched that with impressive percentage rises. The Brentwood Weekly News summarised GCSE performance this week, “Brentwood schools buck national GCSE trend”:

SHS will embark on their first full year as an Academy and have announced in the past week that they have secured local and central government grants totalling over £2m to significantly upgrade classrooms and build a new drama studio. BCHS will see the start of the headship of Mr Stephen Drew, named during his appearance on the BBC1 early evening programme this week as “The One Show’s favourite teacher” and fresh from addressing a conference in Edinburgh with his former colleague Vic Goddard. It will be interesting to judge the mood and approach at both schools when we visit.

After all the recent turmoil, parents will ultimately decide on which schools are the best populated and, by extension, most fully funded. With open days starting in early October, I advise all my fellow parents to make a full assessment before stating your preferences. I have already ruled out the school closest to my house however.

Stephen Mayo


  1. There are lots of practical (i.e. non-ideological) reasons to oppose free schools – one of the most obvious being that duplicating school places in areas where there is already a surplus leads to schools (including presumably even the free schools, in future years), being under-resourced. We see this happening now in Suffolk – no more clearly than at Ormiston Sudbury Academy (previously Sudbury Upper School), which has suffered with the advent of the (free) Stour Valley Community College. But to me one of the most harmful aspects of Gove’s Free Schools policy is that in suggesting free schools are needed “to raise standards” (even where, as you outline, they aren’t), and because (some) “parents need a choice for their children”, doubt is put in people’s minds about what is already on offer at existing schools. Immediately, what was previously parents’ default position – going to the local school – becomes felt to be potentially high risk compared with picking a new school which doesn’t even yet exist (but is much better than existing schools at marketing). It is, after all, easy as a parent to worry that the naysayers might be right.

    But what could be higher risk than choosing a new, untried school that lacks support from existing schools and local authority staff? I hope Becket Keys doesn’t go ahead, so that parents and pupils (and the diocese of Chelmsford for that matter) can go back to supporting and enjoying local schools. Or at least that if it does, other parents follow your example. Best wishes for the coming term.


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