Another free school? Don’t spare the hyperbole.

Just as the dust appeared to be settling on an extraordinary year or so in education in Brentwood, we receive news that there may be more change in the offing.

The following article appeared on the “This is Total Essex” website on Tuesday, too late to make it into the week’s papers but none the less significant. A group of “parents and grandparents” have launched a bid for a free school to serve the parish of Ongar.

Having visited the site of the proposers I was unconvinced that they had a particularly strong case and they certainly don’t seem to be very advanced in their campaign. I was also concerned (again) about the potential effect on Brentwood.

Once I had aired this on Twitter I was fascinated by the response. The central issue for supporters of the idea seems to be that since 1989 they have not had a local secondary school and so every child travels for a significant amount of time usually into either Brentwood or Epping.  Some therefore see the free school policy as a way of providing the solution.

I was grateful in particular to Paul Mendel who raised the current consultation that Epping Council are undertaking into developing parts of the parish for housing. Potentially this could increase the numbers of families in the area and strengthen the case for a new school. As the following link indicates, this is a distinct possibility but will take time to feed through it appears. We will monitor progress with interest.

I couldn’t help notice however that the proposal currently seems not to have a “sponsor”, an aspect which even renowned free school supporter Toby Young believes is now crucial to a proposal’s success. Coincidentally my attention was drawn to the latest project of the “sponsor” of Brentwood’s only current free school, Becket Keys, this evening and it made me think that the Ongar group may be missing a trick.

The following link is to a report of a “prospective parents” evening in Hove for those interested in sending their children to the latest “Russell Education Trust” (RET) backed establishment, the “King’s School”. Our old friends Karen Lynch and Richard Elms are in attendance and much of the report will be very familiar to Brentwood residents.

Based on this, the lesson for Ongar’s proposers appears to be straight forward, make extravagant claims about your proposed school and trust that enough people will believe them. An observation in the blog will be familiar to those who have followed the Becket Keys story:

“the word “outstanding” was used frequently.”

There are other observations that will also interest Brentwood residents:

“King’s are funded by central Government and will give up to 11% of their funding to RET”

11 per cent? The Gazette reported 4 per cent in July in the following report, is the figure not correct?

The number seems to be related to that which would usually be paid to local authorities for a range of services as the following passage seems to confirm. It also raises issues about the nature of RET’s arrangements with those they sponsor:

“Richard Elms claimed that that the Council’s services were mixed in quality, to which the questioner replied that “at least they are accountable”. Richard Elms conceded that there was no accountability with RET. A questioner asked how long King’s were contractually obliged to work with RET and the answer was “indefinitely”. The questioner then asked if King’s could terminate the contract and the answer was “no”.”

The approach to admissions will also be of interest to Brentwood’s schools who, because of the eleventh hour signing of the funding agreement, had to wait to have absolute confirmation of who would be attending at the beginning of term and had to adjust their plans accordingly. It appears that this is not a concern for Mrs Lynch, a Becket Keys governor, who is advocating a last minute approach in Hove too. Not very considerate of the “family of schools” with which you purport to want to work with.

The key passage however is this:

“King’s were keen to reassure parents that they were up to the job and that they would overcome the lack of a site, a lack of older children etc. RET cited examples of other free schools they have opened. They particularly highlighted Becket Keys in Essex with talk of “happy students, in a happy, outstanding school”.”

Becket Keys has been open for five weeks. On what basis can it be claimed to be “outstanding”?

I have had the opportunity over the past few weeks to visit St Martin’s, Brentwood County High School (BCHS) and Shenfield High School (SHS). All have head teachers with considerable secondary school experience. Carole Herman is in her second headship, Mike O’Sullivan is a registered Ofsted inspector. None spoke so blithely about becoming a school rated as “outstanding”.

Stephen Drew spoke at the BCHS Open Day and subsequent Parent Tour about the steps to reaching that status. He was able to draw on personal experience from his time at Passmores Academy in Harlow to illustrate that it is a path that takes years of concerted effort by all in the school to achieve. To claim that it is achievable in two years is fanciful. To assign that status to a school in its second month is laughable.

Can a school be “outstanding” if it doesn’t have a library? Is it possible to be “outstanding” if not all staff have previously taught in a secondary school or even have qualified teacher status? Don’t “outstanding” schools have to have been independently assessed in some way?

And yet, as we reported in mid-July in our post “Why the Brentwood Gazette article on the “Russell Education Trust” is important” this is nothing new:

“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.”

Ongar’s free school proposers take note, PR does not rely on credible evidence.

Stephen Mayo


  1. Too true – free school proposals without spin would be unlikely to attract much attention at all. But Becket Keys might like to note that Seckford were reported to the Advertising Standards Agency for using ‘outstanding’ in their advertising about Beccles free schools, and were asked not to use it (or face formal investigation by ASA). The grounds for the complaint, submitted by James Hargrave and upheld by ASA, were that ‘outstanding’ has a specific and commonly-understood meaning when used in relation to schools and Ofsted. So suggesting a school which has not been inspected is ‘outstanding’ is effectively making a false claim.

  2. Many thanks for your comment Emma, you are absolutely right of course. The RET are careful now not to use the “o” word in print, prefering “exceptional” at the moment. James Hargrave’s post on this issue is available here for those who are interested:

    By verbally using the word (liberally) in meetings that they host we understand that this avoids the possibility of censure. Hopefully we have given some context to those claims and provided some information to challenge them, both in Hove and locally.

  3. Actually Becket Keys do still use “outstanding” in their Vision and Values ( Personally I think its fine so long as its clear its a “goal” rather than an Ofsted judgement. I’ve seen other schools use it in the same way. It demonstrates what they believe they’re capable of, and gives them something to live up to. I wouldn’t expect anything less.


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