The expensive free schools no one needs

The expensive free schools no one needs

guardian.co.uk |by Dorothy Lepkowska on July 9, 2012

  • Dorothy Lepkowska
Jeremy Rowe, headteacher of Sir John Leman high school in Beccles, Suffolk

Jeremy Rowe: ‘The government is giving £2m to a school for 37 pupils. It makes me angry to think what I could do with this money’. Photograph:  /Si Barber

There are around 10,600 empty school places in Suffolk. Or, to put it another way, if 10 average-sized secondary schools were closed down, there would still be a place for every child living in the county who needs one. Which made it somewhat surprising, therefore, when the Department for Education approved four free schools in the county, with a further two in the offing.

“The Suffolk free school scandal”, as local campaigners are calling it, has turned this rural county into an ideological battleground for the education secretary Michael Gove’s flagship policy. Millions of pounds are to be spent on setting up and kitting out new schools that are simply not needed, and in most cases not wanted, by local communities.

Campaigners in the county say they do not object to free schools per se, but they don’t understand how or why approvals were granted here. They are not likely to find out. Freedom of Information requests, seen by Education Guardian for access to business plans, minutes of meetings and consultation reports have been refused on the grounds either that they are not in the public interest or because to disclose the information would be “inappropriate”. In some cases, the documents were released, but only after approval had been granted, for example the consultation report for a free school in Beccles, carried out by Cambridge Education, which revealed an unequivocal lack of support for such a school.

Requests by parents and community leaders to meet DfE officials to discuss the proposals were also refused. The DfE, it seems, will meet only bidders.

“There is a staggering lack of transparency,” says Emma Bishton, a parent and member of the Compass (Community and Parents Actively Supporting Our Schools) group, which has opposed the creation of a free school in Stoke by Nayland. “Free schools are supposed to be about community engagement, but we are not getting any opportunity to engage,” Bishton says. “At every turn we have been refused information.”

This included details of a meeting between county council and DfE officials held to discuss the progress of free schools in the county. The response to the FOI request states that as no minutes were written or actions taken, there was no information to disclose.

“We have people from a broad political church within our group, but one thing we are all clear about it that this is not the way to plan the future of education in this county,” says Bishton.

Most of the free school bids in Suffolk are driven by the Seckford Foundation, which runs a fee-paying school and residential care homes in the county. It is being aided, in no small part, by an ongoing county reorganisation that will see a three-tier system of first, middle and upper schools replaced with a two-tier structure. This has left some empty school buildings that could be used for free schools.

Jeremy Rowe, head of Sir John Leman high school, in Beccles, where the most controversial free school to date is scheduled to open in two months’ time, put up a tough fight on the grounds that the school would undermine his own. His school’s most recent Ofsted report described it as  “good with outstanding features”, offering a broad curriculum and good pastoral care – not a school that seems to cry out for  a bit of competition.

Rowe says recent months have been difficult as the school has had to plan time-tables and staffing without knowing how many pupils would opt for the free school instead of Sir John Leman. To attract more pupils away from their chosen schools,  the Seckford Foundation has offered free uniforms, free school meals and an iPod Touch for each child. Even so,  only about 37 students are due to start at the free school in September.

“The government is giving the foundation a cash hand-out of about £2m to open a school for just 37 pupils, which was opposed by more than 3,000 local residents,” says Rowe. “It makes me very angry when I consider what I could do with this amount of money in my own school.” He has called on Seckford to withdraw its “farcical free school project” from Beccles.

But Rowe is claiming victory. On Twitter, he wrote: “McFree school: whatever happens, we won.” And he says: “I am delighted that even after all this, 97% of parents are showing confidence in their local school. By anyone’s standards, that is an extraordinary approval rate and vote of confidence.”

In other communities, the lack of suitable buildings has created opposition by planners as well as residents. In Frome, Somerset, the proposed Steiner free school is embroiled in a row with some sections of the community about school places, traffic and planning permission. Planning permission has also been refused by councillors for the proposed Bedford free school, in Bedfordshire. Gove is reported to have told a recent free schools conference that he would try to overrule refusals to grant planning permission to free schools, smoothing the path for them to open.

The manner in which free schools are being approved around the country is raising eyebrows elsewhere. A report last week from the Royal Society of Arts said: “There does not appear to be any rhyme or reason as to where free schools are being encouraged or permitted” and described them as an “unguided missile rather than a targeted weapon in the school programme”.

The DfE says the aim of the policy is to increase parental choice and not to reduce it by undermining existing schools. “Every stage of the process of approving, or otherwise, a free school is entirely open and transparent, and the process is clearly set out,” a spokesman said.

“As with all free schools, we work hard to ensure good value for money for the taxpayer. Parents should have choice over which school their child attends.” On the  issue of Beccles free school enticing students away from the local secondary, he added: “As long as there are sufficient places available, they can send their children to whichever school they think best suits their child’s needs.”

Graham Watson, director of the Seckford Foundation, says: “The foundation remains confident that numbers will continue to rise for places at the Beccles free school in the coming weeks as more and more people take up the freedom of choice in their child’s future education.”

The National Union of Teachers has complained to the Information Commissioner about the education secretary’s refusal to release assessments of the likely impact on local schools. “It is vital that these are made public and the veil of secrecy lifted,” said its general secretary, Christine Blower.

Meanwhile, the Local Schools Network is watching developments with growing concern. Fiona Millar, one of its founders, says: “It is impossible to find out what criteria are being applied to these schools or how these decisions are being made. The DfE is now creating a situation where it is survival of the fittest and it is doing so deliberately, believing competition will improve provision and up everyone’s game. At the same time, it wants to increase the number of free schools as the policy is stalling in many areas and starting to look like a failure.”

For Rowe, the Beccles free school decision has been an “utter catastrophe” for the public image of the policy. “The government has exposed itself as being prepared, in a time of so-called austerity, to throw money at pet projects to make them succeed, despite the strength of opposition locally. It is complete hypocrisy to suggest that this is being done for any other reason than political ideology.

“Michael Gove has seriously under-estimated the confidence and sense of loyalty that people have towards the schools in their communities.”

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