Why are we still allowing parents to be school commissioners?

So, following my blog from just over a week ago (“Business failure rates should not be the model for education” http://wp.me/p2dr6s-hW) , the Ofsted report for IES Breckland free school in Brandon, Suffolk has finally been released. It does not make happy reading for anyone who cares about the education of young people and the primary concern should be how the school can best be helped to quickly recover from its “inadequate” rating.

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/mar/11/free-school-ies-breckland-suffolk-special-measures-ofsted

Much has been made, by all shades of politician, of the desirability of “parent power” in education. I am hoping that this case may make them all step back and consider whether giving parents views greater weight than experts is quite the panacea they believe it to be. Ofsted’s assessment of the governing body (on page 8 via the link below), made up of parent proposers, indicates that there may be a difference between wanting a school and knowing how to operate one.

http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/inspection-reports/find-inspection-report/provider/ELS/138250Ongar twitter

On a national level, I am particularly concerned that time is taken to reassess how new schools come into being because, while local authorities continue to have a statutory duty to ensure there are enough places for local children, the reality of the free school programme is that some parents, as in this case, have effectively become school commissioners.

Some argue that is a good thing, parents are being “empowered” (as if they can’t be in existing schools), but the by-product of that has too often been schools created in haste and naivety and with far too great an emphasis of demand over need. Critically, in a time of austerity, it is causing a great deal of much needed funding to be ineffectively allocated.

It staggers me that the approval process has barely changed since its inception despite the well publicised failures within the programme and when it is agreed that insufficient primary school places have been created by it. The promise to place new provision only in areas of deprivation and acknowledged need has also been conveniently forgotten.

I would also argue that the current arrangements actually make it more difficult to found a successful school. The process is too quick, relies on self interest and good sales patter over evidence of viability and cuts out the majority of the local community. Surely encouraging local people to have a proper stake in the outcome of a new project is going to buy its proposers time to achieve an effective implementation.

This is more straight forward to achieve when there is an acknowledged need for a school, when a local authority needs to step in and commission a school to meet its statutory duty for example. But in areas with surplus places, by definition, others may receive reduced funding as a result of the establishment of a new school.

As they are directly affected they should therefore have a say in the approvals process. But they don’t. Instead anyone who has concerns or objections to a proposal is actively cut out. Only those in favour count.

We saw this recently in the dreadful story of Sulivan Primary in Fulham (“Sham “consultations” are no
way to establish community supported schools”  http://wp.me/p2dr6s-hI ) and it is déjà vu in the genesis of a new proposal on our doorstep.

This week those behind the campaign for a free school, “The Ongar Academy”, made an appeal in the local press for more parents to sign up in support. They openly state that they have only half the numbers they need for their submission to be taken seriously by the Department for Education (DfE). Given the terms of the current process that is all that needs giving consideration too and I don’t blame them for highlighting it.

http://www.brentwoodgazette.co.uk/100-children-needed-new-Ongar-Academy/story-20793354-detail/story.html

Breckland OngarThey don’t need to provide any evidence about whether the school they propose would be viable, whether a full cohort of 120 would enable a broad curriculum to be taught by specialist teachers or whether a sixth form would be possible.

No information is needed on how the school will be governed or secondary expertise provided and certainly no appeal for support from the wider community. Because the DfE is not interested in their views. Or the views of local parents with children at existing schools in neighbouring towns. Just Year 3-5 parents who are prepared to say that, if a school existed, they would consider sending their child there.

Let me stress, I do not blame the proposers for this, they have correctly assessed the process and are focussing on how to achieve their goal.

The very act of collecting “demand” is of course spurious. It is made very clear to those signing up that they are “making no commitment” which may explain why so many free schools have opened under capacity. This is not an issue for a new school while they enjoy initial preferential funding but a continuing low role threatens long term viability, a rarely mentioned fact at this stage.

Some free schools recognise this and resort to unedifying, and possibly illegal, poaching tactics as uncovered this week by the Suffolk blogger James Hargrave in the case of the new Ixworth Free School. I struggle to see where competition is benefitting existing schools when this is going on.

http://blog.hargrave.org.uk/2014/03/seckford-move-to-poach-thurston-pupils.html

My central concern about giving a small number of parents school commissioning powers is that it affects those of us who have no say in it.

This week, I wrote to our local paper in response to a statement by the Leader of our Council, Louise McKinlay the previous week in a comment piece regarding free schools. “Competition can only be good” she said. Part of my response spelt out what this means for most children and parents:

Paper letter“What actually happens is that you restrict student choice as schools are forced to shrink their curriculums to fit their funding. What we risk is creating a system where we have a large number of small schools offering the same options and that will struggle to provide viable sixth forms.”

So rather than have my children’s choice eroded in such a manner I would like my views to be taken into account if you don’t mind. Or to return planning to those who have a statutory duty to meet the needs of all rather than a small number who can get a petition together.

Meanwhile, as the only ones with a say, it is down to Ongar’s primary school parents to decide whether they want to take the free school proposal any further. They can also ask the proposers what they learnt from their trip to IES Breckland.

Stephen Mayo

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