Thursday, 19 July 2018

Gibb offers Labour MPs & Bob Blackman help in setting up a Hindu Free School to replace Swaminarayan

In a debate yesterday Nick Gibb (Minister of State for School Standards) offered two Labour MPs, Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) and Stephen Pound (Ealing North) help with setting up a Hindu free school to replace the private, fee-paying Hindu Swaminarayan which is to close by 2020.  He advised them to seek help from the New Schools Network and once the proposal was in play promised he would allocate an officer from the DfE to help the proposal reach fruition. He offered to meet the two MPs and Bob Blackman, Conservative MP for Harrow East, to discuss particular proposals. Full Hansard report HERE.

During the debate Sharma praised Blackman for securing the site for the school when he was leader of Brent Council and claimed that Dawn Butler (Labour, Brent Central) was a 'fervent' supporter of the school and that Gareth Thomas (Labour, Harrow West)  had been working with the community to try and find a solution.

The intervention by the Labour MPs is particularly interesting because of the current debate within the Labour Party about its attitude to free schools and academies and whether policy should be to reintegrate them into the local authority, as well as its policy on religious schools. The alternative view is a reiteration of the Blairite line 'standards not structures.'

Blackman took a swipe at Sladebrook High School, a local authority school that had previously occupied the site, describing it as 'notorious' and before closure having more teachers than children. Despite assurances from the Swaminarayan Hindu Mission that they did not want to profit from the site he asked the Minister what protections could be offered for the site which has been 'a school site forever' having been built at the same time as the Stonebridge Estate. Blackman made a vague reference to a possible site for a Hindu free school in Northwick Park.  One of the options for the One Public Estate redevelopment of Northwick Park included a secondary school but this was not the preferred option. There is also a proposal on the table for a North Brent Secondary School.

Gibb replied:
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) is, of course, right that the Government’s academies and free schools programme has enabled a number of Hindu faith schools to be established in the state sector for the first time, as free schools set up by organisations such as the Avanti Schools Trust. He pointed to a new school opening this September under the free schools programme. There is also the Avanti House Primary School in Harrow and the Avanti House Secondary School, which were opened under the free school programme—the secondary was rated good by Ofsted in May 2018. There is the Krishna Avanti Primary School in Croydon and the Krishna Avanti Primary School in Leicester, again set up under the free school programme.

There are more than 2,300 independent schools in England, and between them they provide an enormous variety of educational experiences for our young people. Around 7% of children are educated in the independent sector, which is a significant contribution to our education system. Some schools in the independent sector will close and some will open. The independent sector also has a number of faith schools, which bring their own distinctive flavour. Schools with a religious character also play a strong and positive role in the state-funded sector, making up a third of all schools. They are some of our highest performing schools and are often popular with parents, giving them greater choice and the opportunity to pass on their ethos to their children.

Although the independent school sector as a whole is flourishing, with broadly constant numbers of schools and pupils over the past few years, it is inevitable that there will be changes. Every year, a number of independent schools close—usually about 70 or 80. Other schools open their doors in broadly the same numbers, but the profile of the sector tends to change over time in response to a number of factors, including market pressures. We should not forget that independent schools, whether run by charities or as businesses, operate in the marketplace. The decision to close an independent school is a matter for the owner or proprietor alone, except for the small number of cases when the Government seek to close a school because of a serious and extended failure to meet the independent school standards; that has not been the case for the Swaminarayan School.

Unlike state-funded schools, independent schools do not have to go through an approval process before they close. Although the owner or proprietor is asked as a matter of courtesy to inform the Department for Education that the school can be removed from the register of independent schools, there is no obligation to give the Department any details of the reason for closure. The Department passes what it knows to the relevant local authority, in case the closure results in demand for state-funded school places.

It is, of course, always a priority, whenever an independent or state school closes, to ensure that alternative schools are found for the pupils. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East is absolutely right to raise that important issue. It can be a very difficult time for families, and sometimes there are added time pressures. Families were told about the closure of the Swaminarayan School well in advance. That is not often the case, and it will assist parents who are currently sending their children to the school.
I turn to the closure. Although the school is not in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, it is likely that many children from families in his constituency attend it. Naturally, those families will have found the announcement of the closure disappointing. It is a reasonably sized school: in January 2018, it had 420 pupils, although only 377 are expected to be there this September, and it caters for an age range of between two and 18 years. When it was inspected in 2014, the Independent Schools Inspectorate found that the provision was excellent. The October 2014 report says the school:
“enables pupils to obtain excellent standards in their work and to develop outstanding qualities as young people”.
It also says:

“Both at GCSE and in the sixth form, pupils benefit from first class curricular arrangements, and from a wide-ranging programme of activities”.

That reflects what the hon. Gentleman said. As I said, there is no requirement to give the Department specific reasons for closure, but our understanding from statements supplied by the trustees is that the reasons are primarily financial, and that falling pupil numbers are the driver. The closure of all parts of the school is now planned to take place in 2020, to give parents the maximum amount of time to find alternative schools.

The school has a designation as a school of religious character and a declared religious ethos of Hinduism, although not all the pupils who attend are of that religion. It is right to acknowledge that the closure of a school with a specifically Hindu ethos is a matter of regret, simply because at present there are relatively few other schools of that nature in England. There are two primary academies, four free schools and an independent school. Most Hindu children attend schools in the state or independent sectors.

As I have suggested, there is nothing the Government can do to stop the closure now that the trustees have taken the decision. We do not fund independent schools, and nor do we come to arrangements that are designed to help them overcome financial difficulties. That is what being independent is about; it is not just about giving schools greater freedom to operate in the way they want.

I am sure the school will work closely with the local authority and parents to ensure that alternative schools can be found for the children who are still at the school in 2020. I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East about the site. If it had been a state school, there are particular provisions to ensure that the first option is for it to open as a free school. As it is an independent school, I will write to my hon. Friend in technical terms about whether there are provisions in statute that can enable the site to continue to be used for educational purposes, or whether it is free for the owners to dispose of as they wish. I will write to him to confirm that position.

I have listened very carefully to what the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall said. The priority over the next two years must be to ensure that the pupils who would have been at the school in 2020, had it remained open, are found alternative places.

We give a lot of help to groups that wish to set up free schools. The New Schools Network is the starting point of that help; once a proposal is in play, we will allocate an official in the Department to help it come forth. A number of Hindu free schools have already been established through that process, and I am happy to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), if they want to meet to discuss particular proposals for a Hindu free school to replace the Swaminarayan School.

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