Monday 27 January 2014

Chaotic scenes at Gladstone Free School 'consultation'

There were chaotic scenes at the Crown Moran Hotel in Cricklewood tonight when locals clashed with the Gladstone Free School organisers over plans to build on Metropolitan Open Space next to Gladstone Park.

It was clearly a  mistake to combine a meeting for parents about the proposed curriculum and school uniform with a statutory consultation about whether the school should go ahead and sign a funding agreement with the DfE.

Ray Watson, who has worked for the DfE on academy conversion and the setting up of free schools,  and spoke for the governing body on legal issues, found himself in trouble when challenged about whether the consultation was 'clear, concise and transparent' s required, about the length of the consultation, if the free school would deprive local authority schools of funding, and whether a building would be ready in time for the 2014 intake.  He denied that Brent Council had said 'no' to the use of the site for a free school 'for the simple reason that no planning application has been made' but reliable sources have told me that the Council has made it clear in talks with the free school provider that they were opposed to the use of the Gladstone Park site.

A governor fared no better when challenged whether she was 'local' and her reply, 'Yes, I come from Barnet'was greeted with gales of laughter.

A speaker from the floor said he had contacted Crest Academy and Whitefield schools and had found that there were 160 vacancies each for both girls and boys at nearby Crest Academy and for 50 boys and 60 girls over the border in Barnet. He claimed that the argument that the new school was needed because of a shortage of school places was therefore wrong.

Paul Phillips, the principal designate of the free school, who looked increasingly dejected as the meeting went on,  gave an account of the school's small school structure, (120 children in each year group - 3 classes); its commitment to a broad, engaging and 'personalised'  curriculum which went beyond examination preparation, and its provision of a model more akin to what existed in primary schools and that would enable a smooth transition.   He had worked in  the state sector for 27 years and in 11 schools.

The account was listened to carefully but afterwards people felt much of it would be said by any good local authority school.

The issue of the site kept coming back and it was clear that there was real anger from local residents about the threat to their green space and at times this became an argument between prospective parents and residents with accusation that a middle class elite were trying to set up a school for themselves on the community's land.

Asked if the meeting had been deliberately arranged in a pub to discourage Muslim parents the free school oirganisers said 'no' and offered to hold another meeting in non-licensed premises.

Challenged on what would happen to children who were due to start in Year 7 at the Gladstone Free School in September, just 8 months away, if not site had been acquired and there was not building to move into,.  Ray Watson said there had been a similar scenario in Bradford when a free school opening was deferred. He would hope that the parent would have also applied for places elsewhere but that Gladstone would work with the local authority to find the children places. Which would suggest that they may end up in Crest after all.

Eventually the meeting split into two halves with the 32 parent or so, going off to another room to discuss uniforms, curriculum etc while the remainder, mainly residents, stayed being and had an an ad hoc meeting to organise their opposition.

My own position is that I am opposed to free schools on grounds of principle: they fragment the local authority schools system, they are not democratically accountable to local residents, they take up funds that could be used to support local authority schools, they often employ unqualified teachers and in the case of Stem 6 in Islington undermine basic teacher conditions of service. I am also against the loss of green open space in a borough that needs to protect every inch it has.


Alex Colas said...

Thanks for the report Martin. It's a shame some parents put so much effort into building bespoke schools for their own children with tax-payers money, and seem to put so little effort into community campaigns to save and improve our existing schools, and get new ones built by a democratically accountable local authority. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that free schools like this are just vanity projects for aspirational parents.

Alex Colas said...

Thanks for the report Martin. It's a shame some parents put some much effort into using public create to make bespoke schools for their own children, and seem to put so little energy into protecting and improving our existing schools, and getting central government to allow local authorities to build new, democratically accountable schools. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that free schools are little more than vanity projects for aspirational parents.

Anonymous said...

Those at the meeting cited the vacancies at Crest Academy as a reason to not build a new school? Did anyone mention WHY Crest has soooo many vacancies and take a look at the recently published results? As a parent I recently removed my child from Gladstone primary (disaster zone) and certainly will not send them to a future of failure via Crest.

Anonymous said...

Ok. But the last thing you need to do after that experience is to take a punt on a pig in a poke, isn't it? Have you looked at the Free Schools' record? You might have given up supporting QPR, but it's not a rational move to transfer your allegiance to Barnet FC.

Anonymous said...

Gladstone Park Primary is not a disaster zone.......the current situation has been an ofsted stitch up as most of you know. My son left GPPS on a high level 5 and is currently on course for A*'s in his GCSEs. The groundwork done by the teachers in GPPS has enabled him to flourish! Maybe you have another agenda here!!!!