Pleased as I was to see my article in the Guardian on the experience of proposing a new free school, I was slightly taken aback by the ferocity of some of the negative comments it received on their website. My personal favourite has to be ‘you are dangerous….dont you have a job to do?’ I had anticipated that there would be some criticism from those who are philosophically opposed to free schools, but I had (perhaps naively) assumed that people would read my piece before passing judgement.Nonetheless, there were some points raised that I feel are worth addressing. it also make me realise how important the local context is. A number of people asked, quite fairly, why we had decided to try and set up a new school rather than focussing our energy on making the current provision better. Perhaps I ought to have been clearer in explaining that our group had started out with precisely this aim. We had no ambition to open a new school, we simply wanted the sort of schools that most people across the country would take for granted – mixed sex, non-denominational, non-selective education. A ‘bog standard comp’, to borrow a phrase. We do have a couple of very good schools that offer this type of education, but they are hugely oversubscribed and their catchment areas are shrinking rapidly. Those who can afford to move house to be close to the school. The alternatives include selective schools, single sex schools and faith schools. We would (still) love any of these existing schools to change, but despite our efforts to encourage them to do so, there is no prospect of that happening. So we felt there was little choice…..send our kids to schools we did not want or open one that did. We found overwhelming support for this type of comprehensive schooling, from parents, local primary schools, the local authority and local community groups and businesses. Over 1200 parents supported our proposal, with over 90% of them coming from within 1.5 miles of the area. At present children leaving year 6 of our local primary schools are routinely scattered to all parts, traveling long distances to attend over 30 different secondary schools. East Finchley is something of a black hole when it comes to secondary schools, which has been acknowledged by the local authority, who established a scrutiny panel to investigate the problem in response to our campaigning. With the population increasing over the coming years, this problem is expected to get even worse. The forecasts predict that Barent will need to find an additional 90 year 7 places in 2013 and a whopping 780 places in 2018. There is such a huge need for new secondary places that new provision is essential….but it also ought to be the type of schooling that parents say they want. Some free schools have, as I understand it, opened in very different circumstances, without the support of local schools and politicians and have had a negative impact on other local schools. I do not believe that is likely in our area. Demand is just too great. One further point that some commenters made was that it was bonkers for a group with little experience of running schools should be allowed to set one up. In response I would make two points:
Firstly, we are setting up the school, not running it. Much as parents who sit on the board of Governors in schools across the country, we will not be involved in the operations of the school on a day to say basis. Secondly, whatever people may think, I believe that parents have a good idea what’s right for their children. And we, as a group of parents, believe that comprehensive schooling is best. That hardly strikes me as being a particularly radical idea. Perhaps we will not succeed with our aims. I am sure we will make mistakes along the way. But if wanting an old fashioned comprehensive education for my children makes me a ‘middle class meddler’ then so be it.