Monday, 8 October 2012

Defend Waltham Forest State Schools

We are group of parents and local residents who have come together because we are deeply concerned at proposals to set up a Free School in Walthamstow.

If there is a need for more school places in our borough, it should be met by expanding our existing Local Authority Schools.

What is being proposed?

A group of local residents called Walthamstow Secondary Schools Initiative and an evangelical religious charity called Oasis Community Learning are proposing to establish a Free School in Walthamstow.

They claim that there will soon be a shortage of places and that the answer to this is to set up a new school, which they claim will be open to children of all faiths or none.

Why are we opposing this?

1.       There’s no need for a Free School

Oasis and WSSI are making some claims about an imminent shortage of places but they are vague about exactly what research they have done into projections for the future of demand. Local Authority figures on primary school places appear to show a bulge in demand in the next few years, but they also indicate a later drop. This is important because if demand is not what the Free School are claiming, it will cause problems for the other schools in the area, as detailed below. If there is a problem, a Free School is not the answer.

2.       Free Schools bring damaging competition into schooling

Because they are outside Local Authority control and planning, but receive funding from the government for the pupils they get, Free Schools compete for places with our existing schools and the Local Authority cannot control their expansion. Local Authorities, given proper funding, have the means to be able to expand or contract school provision around actual demand. Free Schools are outside of Local Authority control and they are not allowed to run deficits. If demand slackens or is not as much as predicted, to survive the school will have to actively poach pupils from other schools and they will cause damage to the other schools in the borough and local area. The National Union of Teachers has already compiled evidence of this happening where Free Schools have been set up.

3.       Free Schools can increase selection

Free Schools elsewhere have introduced selection criteria, often on the basis of religious or ability. Cherry-picking the ‘best’ pupils helps to skew their Ofsted ratings.  This is not just unfair but damages other schools.

4.       Oasis Community Learning 

We are concerned at the idea of Oasis controlling a Free School. They are an evangelican Baptist charity who run several academies but it’s not clear that they are up to the job. Southampton MP John Denham questioned their fitness to run schools after pupils went on the rampage at one of their academy schools in the city, while another was recently hit by strike action after it summarily sacked 13 teachers.

5.       Free Schools are a big step toward schools run for profit 

Michael Gove and the head of Ofsted are both in favour of allowing Free Schools to be run for profit. Powerful US education businesses are lobbying to be allowed to do this. If the Free School in Walthamstow runs into problems it could be sold to one of these firms. This is what happened with the Charter Schools in the US and the results have been disastrous.

We are parents and local residents and we understand the anxieties that have led some parents to think about this option.

But this is not the answer.

There is an alternative:

The WSSI and Oasis are making much of the fact that any new school must either be an Academy or a Free School. That is true but it is not the only solution to any necessary expansion of places.

The Local Authority has recently allowed primary schools in the borough to expand their places to address the problems of the short-term bulge in demand.

In addition, the local MP Stella Creasy recently ran a successful campaign to win more funding for the borough's local schools.

We think Waltham Forest residents should be learning these lessons and building a positive campaign to build a mass petition and create real pressure on the government to allow the Local Authority to expand our existing schools.

This would address the immediate problems while preserving the flexibility which would be lost with the introduction of an aggressively competitive Free School into our community, which is only serving to divide our communities and promote the government's agenda.

Add your name to our petition calling on the Secretary of State to allow Local Authority schools to expand to address any shortfall in places.

Sign our new petition here

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