After well over a year of pressure, Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests and legal action, the Department for Education have finally published the impact assessments for Free Schools that opened in September 2012.
Their content will surprise few but what is very clear is that they are not an objective assessment but rather an exercise in justifying what the process dictates is a fait accompli.
The impact assessment are all available via this DfE link:
As you would expect, I have reviewed the report for Becket Keys free school which contains few surprises and underlines my deep concern with the free school approval process.
I could pick this report to pieces and provide counter-arguments for virtually every paragraph but anyone who has followed our blog will be familiar with most of them. However, by doing so I feel that I am deconstructing a historical text as so much of what is reported in here is unrecognisable to the far more positive local picture today.
I would rather concentrate on why this particular impact assessment, with its inaccuracies, partiality and omitted information, demonstrates the unaccountable nature of the free school process in general. What does this report tell us about it?
Pre-approval is given on the basis of “parental demand” collected before a firm proposal is submitted. In Brentwood, people were asked to back a top level concept of a school based on the church primary schools that they were familiar with. This was before the “Russell Education Trust” were revealed as it’s backers, without any information presented on the potential effect on other schools and before one of the primary school proposers was appointed the school’s head.
This initial survey is used as evidence of “strong demand” throughout but the process never again requires a more detailed survey of those expressing an interest. The fact that some who actively campaigned for the school in its initial stages have not sent their children to the school should cause the DfE to reassess this approach.
2. The process is the wrong way around.
There is no formal indication of when this impact assessment was written but it was clearly late in the process which adds to the feeling that this is a rubber stamp exercise and does not inform the decision to approve. How can initial approval, and the subsequent release of state funds, be given before the impact on neighbouring schools be properly assessed?
Worse still, the report acknowledges that Becket Keys were at an advanced stage in transfer of the site and had already been included in the admissions process:
“The school has offered provisional places and has currently received positive responses from 141 pupils. This equates to the school having filled 94% of the 150 available places.”
As the school opened with 123 (82%), having claimed they would open with 176 in the local press I am not sure what a “positive response” equates to. Whatever the numbers, as it was clearly late in the day, how damning would an impact assessment have to be to prevent the school opening? Perhaps after this news week we know the answer to that.
3. Surplus places were an irrelevance to the DfE and proposers
There is absolute clarification that there were surplus secondary places in Brentwood and that this situation would only get worse:
“All of Essex districts currently have surplus capacity, with the surplus of secondary places in Brentwood in 2010/11 running at 13.3%…In the Brentwood district where the Free School will be located, the secondary school population is projected to decline by 4.3% over the next five years.”
4. Publicly conducted school planning was ignored.
There is absolutely no reference to the 2009 consultation conducted by Essex CC that led to the agreed closure of SHC because of the surplus places issue and formation of a vocational alternative as it’s replacement. [Why Sawyers Hall College closed and what was intended to replace it http://wp.me/P2dr6s-ak]
5. Free schools took precedent over any other consideration.
There is no mention at any point of the two other proposals that were submitted for the former Sawyers Hall College site. The proposed University Technical College (UTC) bid in particular met the brief set down by Essex County Council (ECC) in 2009 for vocational provision and had the backing of the local council and national businesses. The cost of redeveloping the site would have taken far less of our money had this option been taken as private money had been pledged.
6. Statements provided by the proposers are reported as fact.
There is absolutely no evidence for the following for example:
“We also expect Becket Keys to attract some pupils who in the past might have taken up places outside of the maintained system. Or who would have taken up places at one of Essex’s highly selective grammar schools.”
Are we seriously being asked to believe that those preparing children for the eleven plus would not now do so because of a school that did not exist and with no academic track record?
7. Information provided by proposers and that provided by other agencies was not given equal weight
The reporting of the statutory consultation (in itself a farcical exercise that is not independently conducted) is entirely based on the proposers’ two page representation to the DfE. This includes counting a letter signed by over 100 people which are counted as over 100 separate responses. I won’t labour this point, the reality is presented here:
“The Becket Keys Consultation: Accountability Denied”
The DfE, and the school’s proposers, were perfectly aware of the potential negative impact of opening this school on it’s neighbours. Let us not dwell on the assertion that only “affluent” parents have high expectations of their children, Brentwood County High School (BCHS) is explicitly identified as “very likely” to experience a “high impact” should the free school open. Other schools are also identified as likely to lose pupils, and of course the money that is allocated with them.
It may be of interest to parents at BCHS, Shenfield High, Brentwood Ursuline and St Martin’s that the DfE are explicitly stating that they are prepared to open this school even if their children suffered from a decline in resource as a result.
9. No consideration is given to ongoing improvement actions of existing schools
There is no acknowledgement of the new school leadership that had been appointed at both Shenfield and BCHS during this process. The assessment assumes that the governing bodies at both schools were not already addressing their Ofsted status.
In fact Carole Herman was not at her school when the proposal became public and Stephen Drew was appointed in April 2012 to start that September but their appointment should have been known to, and supported, by the DfE.
Which leads us to the central conceit of this “assessment”…
10. The DfE state that opening a new school that deliberately impacts their neighbours will “drive improvements” in them.
Even ECC, described as “supportive of the Free Schools policy”, express concern that a reduction in funding to our existing schools could present “significant challenges in terms of maintaining and improving performance for pupils”.
No-one has ever been able to explain to me how reducing resources to a school can possibly help it improve. Particularly when you are going to give initial preferential funding to a neighbouring one.
It will be a relief to some to see that the DfE state that our schools will all continue to be “financially viable” but they do not explain how this may have to be achieved. They state that those who do not want to send their child to a school with the narrow “traditional” curriculum offered by the free school (and favoured by Michael Gove) will still be able to do so. But by reducing resource to those who have a broader offer they threaten their ability to provide it.
They appear to champion “parental choice” but their actions reduce it.
Of course, it also provides supporters of current policy a “win-win” position. Because if other schools are seen to improve they can claim that the introduction of the free school was the cause.
So, in short, the process is designed to rubber stamp approval made centrally by one man, an apparent champion of “localism”. The impact assessments are not designed to inform his decision they seek to justify it. The current process may suit Michael Gove and those who benefit from his policies, but they are democratically dubious at best.
So now our worst fears about the lack of accountability in this process have been realised, it is time for us locally to see how we can offset the deliberate threat to our schools that it represented and ensure that none of our pupils is forced to move schools mid-education again.
And I use the past tense deliberately. Because whoever wrote this report may be surprised to note that the schools they believed would be impacted have had some of their best GCSE and A level results ever this year. This is not because of the new school, but despite it.
In the submission of their proposal Becket Keys’ claimed that the impact on other schools had been “overstated”. They may have been right after all.