Sunday 7 April 2019

Row looms over Brent Council's proposals for an 'Alternative Provision' free school

The proposal to set up a free school at the £5m Roundwood Centre has surfaced again to be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet.  This time it is called ‘Alternative Provision Free School with Integrated Youth Offer from the Roundwood Youth Centre’ shortened to Alternative Provision School.

I covered the proposal that followed Brent Council cutting youth provision even more severely in its proposed budget  than hitherto, leaving Roundwood free standing with few direct services. Roundwood Centre’s funding source via the Big Lottery MyPlace scheme meant that it could not be closed by Brent Council without penalty.

On January 17th I drew attention to the proposal for a free school/academy on the site LINK:

In addition the council proposes that a PRU (Pupil Referral Unit) be set up in the Centre. This would provide for pupils temporarily excluded from school. It would be classified as a new school and as such would have to be a free school or part of a multi-academy trust. It is proposed that it be run by Brent Special Academies Trust (currently consisting of Manor and the Avenue special schools).

Given Labour’s policy of not creating any new free schools and academies this is controversial within the local Labour Party. This is not only about the issue of lack of public democratic accountability of academies but also the very ad hoc way special needs provision is being developed in Brent and the backdoor privatisation of most of the borough’s non-mainstream special needs provision. A practical issue is whether the BSAT has any relevant experience in running a PRU -  a different kettle of fish from managing special schools.

The Budget Scrutiny Task Force recognised this dilemma stating:

It is far from ideal in our opinion, that this new school would be a free school, but unfortunately the law ensures that new schools opening are always outside of local education authority control. Perhaps a change of central government policy [a Corbyn government?] in future may allow the school to one day become part of the Brent family.

The arrangement is also not perfect for Brent because the asset would transfer to Brent Academies Trust meaning any additional income they derive from hiring out other rooms on site would not be retained by the council, However we will retain some oversite (sic) of the organisations as a senior officer will sit on the Trust’s board.

Later on the evening that this post was published Brent Counci leader Muhammed Butt was asked about it at a Brent Labour Party meeting and I published a follow up on Saturday January 19th LINK:

According to several sources at the Labour Party meeting on Thursday evening Cllr Muhammed Butt said that the PRU (Alternative Provision) would be run by the Local Authority and was not suitable for a school.  He then muddied the waters by vaguely commenting that the authority was part of a consortium looking to set up a free school.
I sought clarification from Muhammed Butt asking:
I’ve heard that you told LP meeting last night that PRU at Roundwood Centre will be run by the LA and not a MAT. Is that correct? If so does Roundwood remain the property of Brent Council? I’d like to put the record straight if the Budget Scrutiny Report was wrong.
Butt replied, somewhat unhelpfully, that he never discussed Labour Party matters externally.
I also asked Brent Council Press Office for a comment but they did not respond.

The proposal now is not that the Brent Special Academies Trust runs the free school/Pupil Referral Unit but that Brent Council seeks a sponsor via the ‘Free School Presumption route.’:

The Free School presumption route whereby the council would advertise a proposal to establish a new school and invite DfE approved academy sponsors to apply to run the school. The council is responsible for providing a site and buildings.

The Secretary of State would make the final decision on a sponsor.

The Council often refers to the Brent ‘family of schools’ to include local authority schools,  academies and free schools, but only local authority schools are under direct Brent Council oversight and democratic accountability and funded via the Council’s distribution of the Direct Schools Grant . Academies and free schools are directly funded by the government.
The Cabinet report notes:
Once open the council would commission places from the Alternative Provision School, funded from the High Needs block of the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG). Currently, the council commissions alternative provision places from within the borough at Brent River College and from external providers. The Alternative Provision School would allow an increased proportion of pupils to be placed in Brent. The procurement process should therefore consider the rates the provider would charge the council and secondary schools for commissioning places, as this will have an impact on the DSG, and there is potential to achieve better value for money for High Needs Block.

On the Budget Scrutiny’s concern over the transfer of the asset the Cabinet report states:

The intention is for one single overall provider working with relevant partners to deliver the Alternative Provision School combined with the integrated youth/community offer. The Council would retain the freehold for Roundwood Youth Centre but the deed of designation would transfer to the new provider, who would take on responsibility for maintenance of the building.

Clearly the ‘deed of designation’ needs careful scrutiny if Brent is not to lose another of its assets, albeit one protected by MyPlace restrictions. The association of the proposal with budget cuts is made clear in the Financial Implications section of the Cabinet Report:

The budget for the Roundwood Centre and the associated MyPlace budget totalled £360k before a reduction of £250k is applied, as per the youth service saving (ref no. CYP005) approved as part of the 2019/20 budget setting process in February 2019. The saving to the General Fund is to be achieved by ending Council run and directly funded youth services from the site creating savings on premises costs, and creating a different model of community and voluntary provision. This model would come into effect when the Alternative Provision School plans to open in January 2020, so the running costs of the Roundwood centre and cost of any operational activity up until this date would need to be contained within the residual £110k budget, or alternative in-year savings would need to be found across the Inclusion service.
It is proposed that the Alternative Provision School would be based at the Roundwood Centre. As mentioned in paragraph 5.1, the Roundwood Centre is subject to a Big Lottery Fund MyPlace grant agreement which is protected by a restriction on the council title at the Land Registry and therefore the form of lease would be subject to the approval of the Education and Skills Funding Agency and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The Council claim that they have sought and received agreement in principle from the DCMS for the proposed use of this MyPlace funded site. 
Following on from the controversy over the  Village School academisation and the suggestion from Labour Party members  that Brent Council, and especially its leader Muhammed Butt, were not following Labour Party policy on academies and free schools, this proposal is likely to be seen as another move to privatise education.  Following on from the almost total (apart from The Phoenix) academisation of SEND education, provision for vulnerable pupils is also being removed from Brent Council responsibility and accountability.

The Cabinet report gives a long list of consultations but nowhere is there a report on the outcome of the consultations. We are expected to presume that that the consultees were in favour. I have submitted an FoI request asking for any reports/minutes on the outcome of the consultations. LINK

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cutting all youth services and privatising its schools? I thought Brent was meant to be a LABOUR Council!!!