The latest controversy involving the “free schools” programme appeared to be coming to a sad conclusion this week. The London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham (LBHF) Council, apparently after consulting residents, voted in favour of amalgamating two primary schools to allow Fulham Boys School (FBS) to establish itself on a site which one of them would vacate.
I became aware of the fervent campaign by the most affected school, Sulivan Primary, during last Summer but had only really been aware of the headlines. The following link provides a summary of the issue and the reaction to the council’s decision.
At a glance, it seems extraordinary that anyone would contemplate closing a highly rated school such as Sulivan, so that, allied to the fact that it involves a free school, has pushed this into the national media. FBS has approval but no home but this appears a drastic solution from the outside.
I don’t propose to examine the case here, others closer to it are far better informed, but in reviewing the road to this decision I was staggered to find that approval was based on yet another democratic travesty.
LBHF undertook a consultation in the second half of last year that, on the face of it, seems to have been undertaken with appropriate diligence. An impressive response rate of over 3500 following well attended public meetings bears testimony to that.
So the conduct of the consultation is not my concern, what worries me is the way the reported conclusions have been used to justify what appears to be a fait accompli.
The “Consultation on the proposal to amalgamate New King’s and Sulivan schools on the New King’s site: Report on the consultation findings” is available here:
The number of respondents disagreeing with the proposal outweighed the number agreeing. The views registered via the stakeholder survey were
- 1367 agreed with the proposal to amalgamate the schools;
- 2226 disagreed.
They decline to give the percentages so, for clarification, they are 62% against and 38% in favour.
The alarm bells begin to ring as early as the next line:
“However, a majority of parents responding to the consultation agreed with the proposal – 1,107 agree compared to 1,036 who disagree.”
And there, in one sentence, is the line that is used as the justification for closing Sulivan Primary.
The report continues for 15 pages and outlines the nature of a large amount of responses against the proposal and a smaller number in favour. We are then provided with a further breakdown of the numbers on page 8. And here we discover who these parents are whose response is deemed by LBHF to carry more weight than their fellow citizens.
So around 98% of parents at Sulivan Primary disagree with the proposal but 1047 “others” are in agreement.
The report does not indicate where these parents live but it is reasonable to assume that it is not in the locality of the site otherwise they would be sending their children to the local school. Wouldn’t they?
Later in the report we learn the following:
“The favourable responses are largely from those associating themselves with Fulham Boys’ Free School…Relatively few of the respondents agreeing with the proposal commented on the amalgamation proposal itself, though some said it makes good sense to combine two undersubscribed schools, but almost without exception they expressed support for a new CE secondary boys’ school and Fulham Boys’ Free School in particular.”
So we have the, sadly familiar, sight of proposal supporters intent on establishing a school without consideration for the effect that it may have on others.
To remind you, this is to establish a Christian school.
But their view is given greater weight than residents of the area and, critically, those directly affected. Non-parent, pupil or “staff/stakeholder” responses are reported as 845 against versus 209 in favour.
Appendix 5 of the report also appears to underline the proportions “for” and “against”. This details actual submissions to the consultation and contains 12 written responses. These include three residents associations, a first class piece of fence-sitting by the local MP and a very interesting response from the London Diocesan Board of Schools.
The Board is very clear that, while supporting FBS in principle, they are opposed to using this site. They also state that when demand for the free school was canvassed this was never mentioned as a location for the school.
There is only one submission explicitly in support. It is a one paragraph e-mail from free school poster boy Toby Young.
We have seen plenty of examples, locally and nationally, of a cursory application of democratic practice in the establishment of free schools. A process that runs after initial approval, is held during pre-opening and is run and reported on (!) by the proposers is plainly designed to rubber stamp the Secretary of State’s wishes. As I understand it, none of the free school proposals given initial approval since 2010 have been stopped from opening as a result of a statutory consultation.
In this case, however, we have a democratically elected council apparently ignoring the responses to its own consultation and cherry picking the one statistic in it that, they believe, can justify its favoured path.
If I were a resident of Hammersmith & Fulham I would be asking my councillors how much money has been spent on this sham.
All of us should be asking our MPs how they are allowing new schools to be established with such disdain for democratic process.