The land that austerity forgot – the ultimate folly of an unfit process

Earlier this month I wrote about my astonishment that schools are still being established using an unaccountable process that shuts out the majority of the community but still expects them to pay for it (Why are we still allowing parents to be school commissioners? I never dreamt that within weeks we would be presented with a bill for possibly the most outrageous folly yet conceived in the name of the “free schools programme”.

The front page of this morning’s Independent informs taxpayers that the Secretary of State for Education has signed off a plan to provide a 500 place sixth form at the extraordinary cost of £45M. I am usually reluctant to react to stories of this nature until the full facts are known however the DfE quote within this piece convinces me that it is accurate.

money no objectThis is already being presented as an opportunity for children from challenging backgrounds to be prepared for Oxbridge. However this is a selective school, so to be considered for entry you must presumably already have reached a high academic level. So why is the state school that has already got a pupil to that level not good enough for A-level study? Perhaps their sixth form has had their funding cut.

The fact that this is ten times more expensive than the average cost of previous free schools is flabbergasting but when you consider the national and local context of this “investment” it is all the more outrageous. The article explains:

“Today’s revelation comes just a month after The Independent revealed that existing state sixth-form colleges had suffered more than £100m in budget cuts over the past three years – forcing some to abandon A-level options such as maths and languages.

My ongoing complaint about the effect on student curricula choice of reducing schools budgets is well illustrated as is the following regarding where we actually need new schools:

“At the same time, there is expected to be a shortage of 240,000 primary school places by 2015 and pressure on places is acute in London.”

As I have written, time and time again, it is the cavalier use of state money that is my principal objection to the (wholly inaccurately described) free schools programme but this story takes it to a new level. It is quite clear from the article that the decision to open this school has been made by Michael Gove himself and that even objections from within his department have been brushed aside.

As a student of politics to degree level, I find this both fascinating and frightening. The hastily approved Academies Act of 2010 concentrated far too much power in the hands of one person and, at a stroke, declared local school planning a thing of the past. This decision could not possibly have been made when local authorities were solely responsible for school commissioning.

Most worryingly, it seems that Mr Gove is quite happy to make what many will see as a politically indefensible decision without apparent fear of significant backlash. Whatever his motivation, it seems that he is operating in a parallel universe untouched by the message of long term austerity provided by the Chancellor only last week. He is allowed to operate in a profligate manner that we have been asked to believe was the trait of the previous government.

And yet no-one seems to be pointing this out.

I fear that this also signals that opposition to his policy to date has not caused him sufficient discomfort. He clearly believes there is no political price to pay. The wider public are not interested in what can be presented as the whinging of teachers.

So why do we need local planning of education spending and why should taxpayers care? Let me provide two local examples in the last few weeks that should help:

Why should we spend £45M on 500 selected students when primary schools are being asked to fund lollipop patrols?

Why are local schools given no option but to become an academy in order to receive equivalent funding to other local schools?

stop childrenThe chosen route of education policy is therefore not providing an equitable distribution of state money to our young people. Indeed, it is actively discriminating against pupils in established schools. The article states:

“So far the Government has spent £743m on establishing 174 free schools for 80,000 pupils. Capital costs of securing premises have been almost double DfE predictions.”

According to the January 2013 School Census there are 8,083,415 students in our schools.

Meanwhile, the school commissioning process continues to pay little regard to efficient use of our money.

This morning I experienced first-hand the “collection of demand” for a new free school in neighbouring Ongar. On arrival at the Leisure Centre I was greeted by proposers at the front door with whom I have shared correspondence in the local press. We had a civilised exchange and I commended them on their persistence and commitment.

While waiting for my daughter to complete her swimming lesson I was able to share a proposer’s pitch to a parent on the next table which illustrated once again why the present process is not fit for purpose.

While pleased to hear that the proposers are not using a private sponsor and don’t intend to, I was disappointed to listen to the reassurance that signing a form saying that you would send your child to the school did not imply “any commitment” to actually go there. The parent, from Kelvedon Hatch (4 miles from Ongar), whose children attend Shenfield St Mary’s primary school (8 miles away) duly signed.

Should enough parents do the same, whether “committed” or not, the proposers will receive further state money and eventually present their plan to the DfE. We should at this point be reassured that this will be properly scrutinised to ensure that a viable school will result, without negative impact on existing schools and, crucially, providing good value for the taxpayer. But this will not be assessed locally, it will be sent to Whitehall.

And then The Secretary of State will make his judgement.

Stephen Mayo

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