It is a controversial subject, particularly after such a tough Budget, but a local team reckons they are in a unique position to start up their Free School…
“Not only do we not have a secondary school within a seven mile radius, but we are bottom of London’s league table for offering parents their first choice of secondary school.” Wandsworth resident, and father of one, Jon De Maria has set up a steering committee, comprising half a dozen local parents and with the backing of 3,000 others, to open a Free School in the Bolingbroke Grove area. They hope to use the old Bolingbroke Hospital as its site and made their initial proposal to central government this week.
“The whole thing starts and ends with our kids,” says De Maria. “Our vision is for a local school, non-selective, secular and socially inclusive. A real mix of kids.” He’s keen to add that he understands people’s anxieties about Free Schools and that the model they are using will also be non profit-making.
Widespread concern about funding Free Schools to the detriment of other local schools is summed up by National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) executive member Chris Hill, himself a primary school head: “I am not necessarily opposed to Free Schools as there should be a variety of schools in any system. However they are new and it’s important that checks and balances are maintained. I think they can succeed but that musn’t be to the detriment of other schools.”
The Free School Policy stems from a 2007 Tory Green Paper and the government has set aside just £50 million for the project, which the Department for Education will review in the next budget, when it has an idea of demand. De Maria explains that this initial pot does not come out of any funding for existing schools.
Free Schools will be free of local authority control, but will be accountable to government and official school inspectors OFSTED. They will be similar to the model for the new academies.
An additional criticism of the scheme is that existing schools will be left with surplus places and therefore not receive funding for pupils who are educated elsewhere. But this is where De Maria and his committee think they have the edge, “We are in a black hole for educating our children locally. There are many more pupils exiting the local primaries than the two local secondaries, Chesnut Grove and Battersea Park School, can possibly supply places for. This leaves many of our local children having to take two buses to schools to the far west of the borough.” While admitting that both Elliott School in Putney and Southfields Community College do indeed have surplus places, he argues that the length and difficulty of the journeys make for a poor transition for 11 year olds changing to secondary education, let alone the problems of scattering local kids round such a large borough.
His team’s vision is that the new Free School will also serve as a “community hub”, with the building used for clubs, a café and even a University of the Third Age.
The Bolingbroke team, officially called the Neighbourhood School Campaign, has brought on board the educational specialists ,ARK Schools, a charity which has already set up academies across London, such as Evelyn Grace in Brixton and Ark Academy in Wembley. The NAHT’s Chris Hill emphasises the importance of having experienced educators on board. “My concern with Free Schools is that people who are running them make sure that educational priorities and standards in learning are maintained. It’s a wild generalisation, but many schools have difficulty recruiting governors. You may want to set up a free school, but will you be able to maintain that, bringing on new people over a long period of time? I would also be concerned about who would lead the curriculum. There would need to be an educational professional. You may buy into the ethos - and this also has to be consistently addressed - but there will also be a whole range of other issues to be dealt with including, perhaps, pupils’ behaviour or a problem with a teacher.”
Bolingbroke parents are standing firm, especially about their long term commitment to the project. They don’t want to “pay or pray” to get their kids a decent secondary education and feel that the new school would provide the cornerstone to their community. September 2011 is the planned opening, although a temporary site may well be used for the first year, as the Bolingbroke Hospital site is still owned by the NHS but is due to come up for sale soon. A head teacher would need to be in place this year.
As Chris Hill says, ”A school is a complicated organisation.”
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June 21, 2010