It would appear that we are opening a new chapter in the story of the ‘free school programme’ after Schools Week revealed that those applying to set up a new school would no longer have to “prove they have interest from parents”. Furthermore, any claims of embodying ‘localism’ have been well and truly buried as proposers will “not have to provide any evidence they have engaged with the local community” about their plans.
The reasons given for this are that the process needs to be ‘streamlined’ in order to stand a chance of meeting David Cameron’s pre-election promise to open 500 new further free schools during this parliament. Local accountability is to be sacrificed in the pursuit of this arbitrary target. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the pretence of local accountability has finally been dropped.
Those who have had any engagement with the free school proposal process up until now will be well aware that the interests of the wider community have never been its concern. As I have written many times since 2011, the ‘collection of demand’ is a deeply inefficient way of determining the need for a new school. The numerous cases of (less than) half empty first cohorts – Trinity House’s 17 pupils are referenced in the article – are testimony to that but the process can also be deeply divisive.
In making the case for a new school, proposers are actually encouraged to be critical of existing provision and yet the possible effect on that provision should the proposal be successful is never spelt out. When you are approached to sign a (completely non-binding) form stating that you would send your child to the new school you are never asked “would you support this school if the drop in pupil numbers caused neighbouring schools to lose funding for their existing and future pupils?” This is why we used to open (and close) schools based on available resources and local pupil numbers. It’s called planning.
Disruption to this model in favour of a marketised one has therefore never had anything to do with service to the whole community but rather encourages the perceived self-interest of a small section of it. The process to date has reflected that as ‘evidence of engagement with the local community’ has been allowed to be restricted to visiting primary schools to court likely supporters of a plan. It is why, locally, Educating Brentwood felt that we had to set up an Open Meeting for interested local residents to highlight and discuss the ‘consultation’ for the opening of Becket Keys free school as the proposers refused to do so.
The fact that free schools have been allowed to open that have selective criteria means that, by definition, they are seeking to exclude part of the community. Indeed, for some this is part of their appeal. However, as the findings reported today of an inquiry by the ‘Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life’ highlights concerning “negative practical consequences of selection by religion” in selective faith schools, they continue to be approved. The Department for Education (DfE) clearly decided that ‘evidence of engagement with the local community’ was sufficient to allow approval of them even though sections of the community would not meet subsequent admissions criteria.
It appears that the primary accountability conceit will continue however. The requirement to hold a ‘consultation’ once approval has been given (and the die cast) remains even if it is widely accepted as a paper exercise which has not led to any decisions being changed, even when there has been a majority response against opening (reference Beccles Free School in Suffolk to which we will return…)
Of course, new schools are needed and will be very welcome in various parts of the country and, as there is no option for them not to be, they will be ‘free schools’ so the declaration in the Schools Week article that ‘basic need’ will be the primary factor for approval from here on looks like a step forward. However, several questions arise from how this is to be applied and the delusion that the programme is about school improvement continues.
Educating Brentwood formed out of concern for the threat of diminishing local accountability brought about by the 2010 Academies Act and its local manifestation in the Becket Keys proposal centered on being run by a Surrey-based academy chain. The reported changes in the free school approval process actually gives greater preference to non-locally accountable bodies to set up new schools.
The DfE representative is quoted as saying “schools with good track records won’t have to do as much” to gain approval, but what constitutes a “good track record”? For example, most secondary free schools have not put pupils through a full GCSE course yet. Would an Ofsted judgement based on KS3 only be sufficient? As the DfE is proposing to give public money to these bodies they need to be transparent about that criteria.
The definition of ‘basic need’ would also be useful. It is extraordinary that the representative states that they are already identifying sites “in basic need areas” but that the school commissioning system is now such that they have to wait for a proposer to put in a bid before meeting that need. Scandalously, by barring local authorities from founding new provision, they are condemning areas of the country to being short of places as potential sponsors may not find the prospect of opening there attractive enough.
Meanwhile the door is left open to wasting scarce resource in areas with plenty of places dependent on “how many places there were in schools that were not good or outstanding”. The entirely spurious school improvement line is thus maintained. The DfE still feel that opening new schools is preferable to giving proper support and resource to an existing school to help it improve.
This line appeared to be politically ‘win/win’. If an existing school struggles following the opening of a new school in an area with surplus places it shows that that school was needed (even if that writes off the young people in the existing school). If the existing school is seen to improve then the credit goes to the new school as its very presence caused the existing school to ‘raise its game’. Offensive to those in the existing school who have brought about improvements with declining resources due to the effect of the new school on their pupil intake of course but who will look at that detail?
However, what happens when the new school doesn’t do quite as well as the DfE blithely expects?
The case of Beccles Free School, given an official warning notice from the Secretary of State to improve last month, demonstrates that meeting DfE ‘demand’ and ‘local engagement’ criteria does not automatically lead to ‘a great school’.
Perhaps a ‘good track record’ will prove a more robust basis for success in future?