As more potential free school plans have surfaced in the area in recent months, I spent some time recently trying to understand on what basis proposals are now assessed.
While noting an apparent shift in emphasis from “demand” to “need” in the approval process, the Department for Education (DfE) does not clearly differentiate between the two, indeed “demand” appears to be a key component of “need”.
Reviewing official advice from the DfE and from “independent charity” the New Schools Network (NSN) I was struck about the speed with which approvals are given, how much ambiguity there is around required evidence of demand or need, and how approval is an entirely central process.
From what I have read, to describe the free school programme as “localism in action” is laughable.
There have been some changes since the first two rounds of free schools were approved as the DfE free school application guide ( http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/f/free%20school%20how%20to%20apply%20guide.pdf ) explains:
“We have placed an even greater emphasis on demonstrating the need for your school and on the capacity and capability of your applicant group.”
The second part of that statement is instructive, just as the clear fast track within the document for those who have engaged in the process before – i.e. academy chains – but we have dealt with that elsewhere. Let us instead examine “need”.
The DfE’s current advice is stated within their “Free school criteria” booklet (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/210875/Free_School_criteria_booklet_mainstream.pdf )
“We will assess whether there is need for your school by weighing up three factors: parental demand, basic need for places and the standards of local schools.
We will look at the data you have provided to judge the level of need and the extent to which you have engaged with a cross section of parents (or students if 16 to 19) from the local community.”
You will note two interesting aspects of this statement, the lack of any assessment of the impact on other schools in the area and that engagement with anyone in the community other than prospective parents (not those from existing schools) is not required.
It is telling that, despite the DfE’s apparent change in requirement, the latest advice from NSN on the relevant section of the application form (Section 5) only references “need” once, in a foot note paragraph:
“Please Note: In this section you are demonstrating ‘demand’ rather than ‘need’. You do not need to include details of demographic pressure or lack of local school places in order for your application to be approved.”
So do the DfE require proposers to “demonstrate the need” for a school or not?
The full NSN document is here for reference:
The NSN document clearly underlines the lack of real change in approach in my view, advice on engagement with the local community is clearly largely concerned with marketing and collecting the all-important “commitment” to the project.
Current advice does include a requirement that the method of collection of “parental commitment” must be made clear by the proposers. Regrettably I do not have access to the equivalent documents from 2010/11 when the first two waves of free schools were approved so don’t know if this has changed and whether it is now more rigorously assessed. On the other hand the wriggle room within this statement in the NSN document is also rather sinister:
“There is no minimum demand required and no maximum demand permitted.”
It has always been a surprise to me that schools were allowed to open with numbers seriously below capacity as this seemed to indicate that “parental demand” was not quite as represented to the DfE.
One of the most infamous examples concerned the Beccles Free School in Suffolk. As reported in the national press at the time, the school opened in 2012 with 37 pupils spread across three year groups.
None of us can be clear on what was presented to the DfE but as the parental questionnaire that the circulated by the proposers at the time demonstrates the method of collection may not have been conducive to collecting accurate evidence of real demand.
How were those who “considered” sending their children to the proposed school counted for example? Why is there no option to respond in the negative?
Plainly in this case the assessment of demand was poor which would not be an issue for anyone but the proposers were it not for the amount of weight this “evidence” carries in this process.
Is any consideration given to drop out rate from proposal to opening for example? Even in Brentwood, less than half of children from the latest Year 6 at the school that was central to the proposal of Becket Keys free school have ended up going there.
Because, critically, signing a form or providing your post code is not a commitment to attendance once open and that is why the weight that this apparently carries is too great.
In contrast the lack of consideration of impact on existing schools is stark. From what I can gather from the documents provided there is no assessment of the status of local schools other than the crude headline Ofsted grade and recent exam results. Recent improvements are not taken into account (e.g leadership changes) and impact of potential declining resource on progressing schools ignored.
Even the DfE’s document acknowledges that “it is normally more difficult for small schools to provide a broad educational offer” and yet they are happy for existing schools to shrink by opening new schools in areas of surplus places.
It is quite clear from the wording of the DfE’s document and the case of Beccles Free school, amongst others, that the current approval process is entirely centralised and is in no place to accurately assess “need”.
It is staggering to me that the DfE timetable, outlined in the application document, is such that approval can be gained within three months of a submitted proposal following one interview.
Furthermore this immediately entitles proposers to a £300,000 grant in the case of mainstream secondary schools and, of course, implicitly commits the taxpayer to millions of pounds of funding in subsequent years.
Of course, prior to 2010, the need for school places was assessed locally via county and metropolitan councils. It was an imperfect system but one that was at least accountable to the electorate and local representation and was required by law to properly consult the community when changing educational provision in an area.
It is clear to me that the need for a similar “middle tier” is critical to properly meet local need and to ensure accountability. I hope to see a plan for one emerge.
At present “marketing” is still more important than “demonstrating need” to those deciding where the education budget should be spent.
My thanks to Ian Goodyer and Martin Campbell for their advice regarding process and for providing the “Beccles Free School Flyer”