Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Our Community, Our Schools – campaigning for OUR schools (and against Michael Gove’s)

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Our Community, Our Schools supporters. We’ve been raising the profile of the issue of Free Schools and countering the misconceptions about our community schools in both the local and national press – and now we’re taking our case to Parliament.

Kiri Tunks, local parent and Tower Hamlets teacher was recorded as part of the Waltham Forest Guardian’s ‘Speak Out’ series of 2 minute videos, making a powerful plea for people to turn away from backing Free Schools. You can watch Kiri’s short film here. Kiri spoke about her experience of improving schools in Tower Hamlets without any Free Schools or Academies – a theme that was picked up by Jonathan White in this week’s Waltham Forest Guardian.

The Guardian featured revealing figures showing that the vast majority of primary schools in Waltham Forest have met a tougher new government literacy and numeracy target. 75% of pupils in all but two schools are reaching the required levels and as Jonathan pointed out, this flies in the face of the government’s disaster narrative which insists that Free Schools and Academies are necessary to drive up standards.

Meanwhile, in the national press, OCOS supporter Scarlet Harris featured in Zoe Williams’ latest piece for the Guardian. Scarlet was quoted discussing the farcical process of local consultation used by sponsors and the DfE to set up a Free School and highlighting the dangers of allowing groups like Oasis and Tauheedul to essentially design their own consultations.

Zoe’s article, which details the growing local opposition to Free Schools, also quotes education expert Laura McInerny highlighting the plight of the children suffering under Gove’s experiment: ‘these kids have one shot at education. I’m not minded to sacrifice 400 children in al-Madinah so that a minister can learn a hard lesson’.

OCOS supporters are taking the campaign into Westminster this week as we have written a submission to the Education Select Committee’s call for evidence as part of a new inquiry on Academies and the processes for setting up Free Schools. We have always maintained that the process of setting up a Free School is fatally flawed, perverse and profoundly undemocratic and that’s what we’re telling the Select Committee. We'll publish our evidence or refer you to it, as soon as we're able to.

More than 800 people have now signed our petition and we have ambitious plans for a new phase of campaigning, including a new letter writing campaign, more leafleting in the New Year campaign and more public meetings, so watch this space for more details soon.

Free Schools - the wheels are coming off

There is a paradox at work at the moment. The Department for Education is driving forward its Free Schools policy as hard as possible, while every day the evidence is mounting that these schools are structurally flawed and a represent a dangerous gamble with our childrens’ futures.

It’s been a hectic few weeks with one Free School closing, another in chaos and yet another the subject of a fraud investigation. The National Audit Office has uncovered the real costs of the Free Schools project while exposing the fact that these are not delivering places where they’re needed most, and in Westminster there is a growing political backlash against Michael Gove’s out of control ideological experiment.

Free to gamble with taxpayers’ money:

On 11 December, the National  Audit Office published a report into the cost-effectiveness of the Free Schools programme. The thrust of the National Audit Office report can be interpreted as a criticism of the Department for Education for being fixated on driving forward its policy of opening new Free Schools at the expense of considerations of value for money or local need. As the NAO put it, ‘The primary factor in decision-making has been opening schools at pace, rather than maximizing value for money.’

The NAO report showed that:

1. 30% of Free School places were being provided in areas with no local need for them, meaning that £241 million in capital funding is being used to fund schools that are not being built where they are most needed.

2. The DfE has been so desperate to drive its new schools forward that it has incurred extra costs. 60% of its Free Schools have opened in temporary premises to secure an early opening time, at a cost of £27 million, while it has seriously underestimated the start up costs of the schools overall.

3. Each Free School has cost, on average £6.6 million to set up, double what the DfE forecast. 

4. On average, 1 in 4 places at the these Free Schools remains unfilled.

As the NAO and the press recognized, this raises huge questions about whether the programme is good value for taxpayers’ money.

In their attempts to drive down the costs of new schools, the DfE has made it easier for sponsors to use a huge range of existing buildings including office buildings, council buildings, surplus hospital buildings, fire stations, warehouses, a garden centre and a builder’s yard!

It’s also worth recalling that the funds for Building Schools for the Future, earmarked for the development of new capacity in our existing excellent community schools, were cut so that the Department could pump taxpayers money into this nonsensical ideological project to smash up local authority-led community schooling.

Perhaps all this would be forgiveable if the schools that emerged at the other end of the process were robust and of high quality. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a real problem with Free Schools.

Free to gamble with your child’s education:

The NAO found that ‘on the whole these Free Schools’ pupils are less likely to be entitled to free school meals than pupils in neighbouring schools’, are less likely to have English as an additional language and are likely to travel twice as far to reach their schools as those in neighbouring schools. (NAO report, p. 42) The evidence seems to indicate that free schools are creating greater social segregation and skewing their intakes toward the ‘middle classes’. 

Some people might see this as a good thing  (we don’t agree ) but socially skewed intakes are symptoms of the government’s peculiar fetish for giving schools ‘freedoms’ and this also produces a whole range of other problems.

On 13 December, it was reported that the Discovery Free School in Crawley, Sussex, would be the first Free School to close its doors, instructed so to do by Lord Nash (the Private Equity fund ‘entrepreneur’ ennobled so that Michael Gove could make him a minister) on the basis that it was ‘unable to deliver even the most basic level of teaching and learning’. The job of training the teaching staff was so great, Lord Nash admitted, that it was impossible to imagine that they could run a school at the same time.

The Al-Madinah Free School in Derby is now ‘safe’ according to Ofsted’, but it’s
still officially in ‘chaos’ with ‘no signs of improvement’ and a failure to address the real problems in leadership and teaching.

Three men have been questioned in relation to a police investigation into suspected fraud at the King’s Science Academy, a free school set up in Bradford. Whistleblowers alleged ‘sustained financial mismanagement’, while there have been calls for the DfE to explain why it failed to pass allegations in connection with suspected fraud on to the police for five months.

These are not accidents, or statistical anomalies. They are the logical results of allowing untrained and inexperienced people and organizations to set up Free Schools outside of the Local Authority, directly managing them from the Department for Education (alongside thousands of academies) and allowing them to recruit untrained teachers.

Political backlash:

That’s one reason why political momentum gaining for an end to Michael Gove’s policy. As we reported recently, leading figures in Labour and the Liberal Democrats are calling for new ‘restraints’ over these schools.

In November, Labour MP Ian Mearns was granted time for a House of Commons debate on Free Schools in which Labour MPs queued up to slam the policy. Labour MP Kevin Brennan nailed the dangers of Free Schools in a particularly sharp contribution:

“the lack of oversight is not an accident, as the hon. Member for Bradford East pointed out; it is part of the design of this ideological experiment. According to the Government, a bit of failure is fine, if there are unqualified teachers, and some financial fraud its okay: in the long run, presumably, some good schools will emerge from the carnage of the experiment. The fact that pupils’ education is disrupted along the way—as with the Al-Madinah free school, which had to close for a week—is presumably just collateral damage and a price worth paying.”

Around the same time, the Education Select Committee announced that it was holding a new inquiry into Free Schools and Academies focusing in particular on the process for setting up a Free School, a process we have previously characterized as ‘perverse’, ‘inverted’ and undemocratic.

The wheels are coming off this policy fast and it’s time for those people who have supported the planned Free Schools in Waltham Forest to rethink.

Monday, 9 December 2013

DV8 – the free school that isn’t a school

By Scarlet Harris

While the evangelical Christian free school, Oasis, and the Muslim girls’ free school, Tauheedul, have received a good deal of attention and comment already, the proposed DV8 free school seems to have generated less controversy.

As a non-denominational provider, it is arguable that DV8 will not have the same damaging effects on community cohesion as Oasis and Tauheedul. As a co-educational provider, it is true that it will not have the same impact on gender balance in existing schools (as is the case with Tauheedul which will leave existing mixed schools alarmingly short of girls). However, that’s not to say DV8’s proposal is a welcome one.

Our main concerns regarding the DV8 proposal are as follows:

1. We believe DV8 is already operating successfully as a private provider and can see no benefit to the learners or to the wider community in DV8 becoming a free school. DV8 has been operating as a private business for many years in Walthamstow. It provides vocational training in subjects relating to the music and creative industries. It offers apprenticeships to young people as well as entry level training. It currently operates from a site near Billet Road. We have sought advice from further education experts and the advice we have been given is that there is no logical reason why an existing private 16-19 provider should become a free school and that the main advantage for DV8 would be access to start up and capital funding from the Department for Education.

2. We are concerned that such a move may have a detrimental impact on existing, local 16-19 providers who will be competing with DV8. We have three local colleges (Monoux, Waltham Forest, and Epping colleges) which are all facing significant funding pressures and are being forced to compete for students. Giving further funding to a private provider who will be in direct competition with these colleges does not seem to be a good solution. Investing more funding into our existing colleges would seem like a better way of expanding and improving the post-16 offer available to young people in the borough.

The consultation survey asks for views on the curriculum offered by DV8 but there is very little in the way of information about the curriculum in the consultation document. This in itself is worrying. The DV8 website offers more in the way of employer facing information (about how cheap it is to employ an apprentice and how little off-the-job training is involved) than it does in the way of course content or links to sector skills council apprenticeship frameworks. As parents we would be concerned if our children’s college appeared to be more focused on selling cheap labour to employers than it did in promoting high quality training and education opportunities to young people and their parents.

Bizarrely the consultation survey also seeks views on the site of the college when – as far as we are aware - there is no site currently proposed. No site is mentioned in the consultation document. Although we know that DV8 currently operate from an existing site, it is not clear whether or not the proposed free school would be based at this same site or whether a new site is being sought.

If you are a local parent or resident who shares our concerns about the use of public funding to support existing private companies in providing post-16 training, please respond to the short DV8 consultation survey which is currently online. It closes on 14th December 2013.