Education Mar 8 2011

How do we decide if we ‘need’ a new school

Published in Guardian Education today

How should we decide what constitutes ‘need’ for a new school? This, I predict, will be one of the most furiously contested issues of the next few years. Giving any willing group the chance to set up a school may sound appealing on paper, but the devil will be in the detail and in some cases the detail could get very murky. Anyone who doesn’t believe that should take a look at what has happened to Christ the King School in Merseyside.

This school was one of the first new BSF projects. Its superb £24 million building includes  features about which many heads and pupils can now only dream. At its triumphant launch in 2009 Tim Byles, the Chief Executive of Partnership for Schools, a quango charged with delivering new school buildings, described it as an ‘ exemplary BSF project’

The only slight problem with this exemplary project was that it quickly became clear that there weren’t enough pupils to fill the school. By January of this year it was barely viable and complete closure has only been staved off by a fiercely loyal parent campaign.

One of the most puzzling aspects of the current ‘grow your own school’ fad, is the ongoing involvement of Partnership for Schools. This organisation’s byzantine bureaucracy was undoubtedly the least attractive part of BSF and was cited by Michael Gove as one reason why the entire programme needed to be scrapped. A better decision might have been to save BSF and scrap PfS – instead it has a new role establishing free schools and even offers a ‘Free School Kit ’ on its website, to help parents understand their ‘educational landscape’ including how many surplus places currently exist.

Assessing the need for new school places is notoriously difficult. Parent choice, demand, demographic change, location of existing schools (often on or close by borough boundaries), and pupil mobility are inextricably mixed. But in a time of rapidly diminishing capital budgets, rigour and precision are surely priorities. Quite apart from the economic cost of more Christ the Kings, there is a human cost to the pupils, staff and families involved in a school that has to close at short notice.

But PfS’ past performance, and the Departments own requirements on new school providers, do not inspire confidence. The free school providers ‘Stage 2’ proposal form contains one question about ‘evidence of parental demand’. The answer is limited to 200 words, the evidence requested looks flimsy and the completed forms are notoriously difficult to come by, even using FOI.

Nevertheless some local parent groups opposing free schools have already successfully challenged this ‘evidence’  by exposing petitions signed by any parent, not just those in the relevant age groups, or local authority data showing that a new school may be needed in 10 or 15 years time but not now.

The point at which this mysterious evidence may become more highly charged is when the Secretary of State decides to use the powers he is awarding himself in the Education Bill to requisition local authority land for free schools.

It isn’t yet clear whether the land will be purchased, leased, at the full cost, or not, but the Bill also states that he is required to assess the impact new provision might have on other local schools. If the impact is another school’s closure, because surplus places already exist or are to be created, will the government’s actions be justifiable, either morally or economically? And might the Secretary of State find himself subject to yet another legal challenge?

Whether surplus places should be created to lubricate a market in education has bedevilled the question of school choice for decades and has always, ultimately, been resisted. If it is now the Coalition’s intention to pursue this goal and force some schools to close, ministers should be more open about this, and give parents in the threatened schools the evidence they need to mount a counter campaign – the government may be surprised by how ferociously parents will fight to protect existing provision regardless of its status or popularity.

If it is not the intention, that should be made explicit too, before more time and money is wasted on projects that may themselves eventually prove not to be viable either.

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