Tuesday 26 March 2013

Michaela Free School: not needed, not wanted, not interested...

I was only the sixth (and the last) person to attend the Michaela Free School Consultation this afternoon. The first on the attendance list was another opponent of the school so Michaela didn't do very well. There were more people from Michaela itself present than there were members of the public who attended throughout the 2 hours consultation period.

Nevertheless I had an interesting chat with Suella Fernandes, vice chair of the Michaela governing body. When I asked about the appointment of Katharine Birbalsingh as headteacher of the school and the process involved I was told that Katharine was the proposer of the free school so she was the headteacher - 'That's the way it goes with a free school'. When I asked, therefore, what quality control there was of the appointment, given the rigorous procedures involved in the appointment of headteachers in the maintained sector, I was told that the free school application had been 'vetted'  by the DfE.

Turning to the governing body I asked how they had been appointed, Apparently they are supporters of the bid and all 'passionate' about education. She did not demur when I said, 'So you are all self-appointed', that's how it is with free schools, apparently. I was told that apart from herself, a planning barrister, other governors included Chidi Amadi, an ex-pupil of Birbalsingh's and Dr Tony Sewell, CEO of Generating Genius. LINK

When I asked whether parent governors would be elected or appointed I was told they would be 'recruited'. As many free schools and academies have only one or two parent governors I asked how many Michaela would have. That was probably unfair as the governing body is still incomplete and hoping to recruit 'professionals' locally, and the vice chair could only hazard a guess off the record.

 Recruitment of teachers is clearly an issue with Michaela offering English, Maths, Science, History. Geography, Religious  Education, French, Spanish, Music, Art and extended day competitive sport, help with university applications, Latin, Mandarin, business and personal financial skills and social and cultural education.  It was clear from my conversation that staff recruitment had not got very far and I warned that some of these were shortage subjects where it would be hard to recruit.

With the school intending to open in September 2014 with four classes of 30 (presumably Year Sevens) I asked how the range of subjects could be covered by 'about eight teachers' and was told that this would be 'no problem at all'.

Pursuing the thought that parents were being sold a pig in a poke I pointed out that with local secondary schools parents could judge them from their examination results (except for Ark that doesn't have any yet) and Ofsted Reports, but all we had for Michaela were assertions in a glossy brochure: 'That's the way it is with free schools starting out'. But they wanted to offer parents a choice based on tradition and discipline.

With Michaela having been rejected in two areas of South London I asked how they had ended up in Brent. Initially I was told that this was because there was a need here and because of the challenges Brent faced with its multicultural population and people not having English as their first language. When I pointed out that Brent secondary schools were achieving well and amongst the top 10% of schools in the country with a proven track record, the grounds switched to the shortage of secondary places. I pointed out that the Council had published plans to deal with this but was told that Michaela was one of the ways Brent was tackling the shortage. When I pressed further the fact that there was a site available in Wembley at Arena House became the dominant factor.When I suggested that the real need was for a secondary school, open to all, in the south of the borough, Suella suggested that I find them a site.

When I asked about planning permission for a secondary school in Arena House I was confidently told by the planning barrister that it wasn't required. When I pointed out that this meant local people had no say in something that would affect them, yes, you've guessed: 'That's the way it is' but people could come along and tell them about their concerns at the next consultation. In the future there will be school students from Ark, Preston Manor, Michaela and the French School at the Town Hall concentrated in this small area of Wembley. When I said that residents were likely to raise a hue and cry the short response was 'Let them'.

I asked about play space in the new school and Michaela agreed there would be very little and they would look elsewhere in the borough for sports facilities. Apparently no agreement has been reached with the Ark about the use of their facilities. At first they did not seem to know about the Town Hall French School but them confirmed that they had been in negotiations for the building but had dropped out because it would not have been ready in time for September 2014. Instead Arena House will be refurbished - at what cost to taxpayers I do not know - but at a time when the poor state of Copland High School has made national headlines...

Suella Fernandes involvement strengthens Michaela's links with the Conservative Party. (Katharine Birbalsingh's career as a Govite was launched when she addressed a meeting at the Tory Conference). Suella is a daughter of former Brent Conservative councillor Uma Fernandes and herself stood as a Conservative candidate in Fryent ward. She attended a local Brent primary school, Uxendon Manor, but her secondary education was at Heathfield School in Pinner - a Girls Public Day School Trust establishment.

The next consultation is on April 4th, 6-8pm Powell Suite, Chalkhill Community Centre


Gastronomix said...

Not surprised that there is little interest mid afternoon during the week and with a lot of people maybe having rather more pressing issues such as the impending changes in benefits to consider.
To me the answers given suggest that the people behind this are simply involved for personal advancement and are prepared to gamble with the lives and education of children. If this trend continues I suspect we can look forward to several failures and schools being bailed out whilst kids suffer.

Anonymous said...

Good work, Martin - keep it up.
Mike P

Anonymous said...

I am a resident of Brent.

I don't know why you are trying to block the creation of new schools in the area.

The fact is that there has been a big rise in age 0-5 year olds in the borough & due to higher fertility rates this can be expected to continue.

The existing schools are already larger than those of neighbouring boroughs so opening new schools is an appropriate solution.

If parents aren't convinced by what a new school has to offer then they will simply send their children elsewhere. At the moment there is a major geographical imbalance between kids & schools in the borough. Both St Greogory's and Claremont are within 1 mile of each other in Kenton receive a lot of students from further south in the Borough 2 miles plus away.

The opening of additional schools can only help things. The French one will be attended by ppl outside the borough so doesnt directly address the issue of school places, but I personally can't think of a good reason to be against it.

Anonymous said...

You insult the citizens of Brent if you think they are incapable of choosing a school for their own children. If the existing schools are good, they have nothing to fear from competition.

Martin Francis said...

On the contrary I was trying to ferret out some information which would enable parents to make an informed choice. The problem is that apart from platitudes in the brochure/website the information is limited to Birbalsingh's philosophy/ideology and parents' perception of whether she can deliver. Parents are certainly capable of making a choice and on that basis I suspect that Michaela will fail.