A free school near you – Who gets to choose?

The proposers of the free school in Stoke by Nayland are not named on their website. They are only ever named as ‘the Stoke by Nayland High School team’. They have not engaged in a joint public debate, despite requests from our opposition group (Compass), and an independent parent via the Suffolk Free Press (our most local newspaper). They have not held a public meeting since May 2010 (the last meeting they did hold was prior to the general election, in the expectation that free schools would be on the agenda).
In response to an email from the Compass group requesting a joint public meeting they stated
“we have been so involved in the detail of the process for so long that we have not been able to engage with the public, as much as we would have wished to. It is important that we share the exciting ideas and developments with the parents and communities that we are aiming to support in our school.”
Instead of ‘engaging with the public’ this rather anonymous group has been relying on cold-calling phone calls and registration via their website to show evidence of a demand for the school. (Indeed they even give parents a let-out clause, stating in their public leaflet that you “will not be committing to send your child to this school, merely registering support so we can evidence potential demand and win the necessary funding”.)
This is extraordinary. They expect to receive several million pounds of public funds, drawn away from other areas of need, in order to plan for a school which is not required, not wanted and would result in loss of funding for other existing local schools, but without needing to demonstrate actual demand for their proposed school. And at the same time they are not required to demonstrate that there is considerable opposition to the school, and nor is there any means of objective consultation that would highlight the concerns of the community about this proposed school to the DfE.
A new Free 11-16 school has already been approved by the DfE to open in September this year in Clare in the grounds of the middle school which is due to close under the LEA re-organisation into standard 2-tier education structure. The LEA (at Conservative-led Suffolk County Council) anticipates that local secondary schools will operate at 81% of planned capacity once that school is up and running. If the additional free school at Stoke by Nayland is given the go-ahead, they predict existing local secondaries will operate at 74% of capacity.
The LEA has stated that the viability of the existing schools – which support a fairly wide catchment as this is a semi-rural area – is threatened if both free schools are approved. The question of viability is an economic one; there is also a significant concern about the effect these new schools would have on pupil choice, as it is also clear that the breadth of curriculum currently available would be significantly affected by small year groups in the existing and new schools, as well as by reduced income in the existing schools. The catchment school that would be most affected by the Stoke by Nayland school, incidentally, was rated good with outstanding features and had the best CVA level results at A’Level in Suffolk in 2009.
Despite all this, parents locally are being ‘sold’ a new school. They are being asked to choose a school which purports to be a ‘Thinking School’ (yet they can’t meet some of the criteria for this scheme until they are open). The proposers also claim it will operate in the spirit of a ‘Henry Morris Village College’ and be a community hub, yet there is no evidence that they have consulted with the community on what might be wanted, and no definition of how their ‘community’ is to be drawn. They make no reference to the fact that the secondary schools in this part of Suffolk already host local facilities (e.g. sports centres) and function very much as community hubs for the wider catchment community and the immediate communities in which they are situated. And they suggest that this is necessary to preserve the sustainability of rural villages, when the school would only be in one of those villages and the LEA already provides transport from the other villages to the catchment schools in the market town.
In essence, the proposers of the free school are marketing a vision of a school with no regard for the damage it would do to existing schools or communities, seeking to appeal to parents under the impression that ‘big’ (1200 pupils) is bad and that small (600 pupils) necessarily means good – when it is clearly systems and actions that matter for nurturing children, not the size of the school. And as outlined above, they are making claims which they cannot validate at this point. They will not enter into public debate to respond to challenge on any of these points, yet they receive support from our local MP and already have preliminary approval.
How is this in anyone’s interest, let alone that of the children who might attend the free school and those who do not, for years to come? Where, Mr Gove, is our right to reply?

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