Time flies…

LinkedIn tells me it’s been three years since I started working on the project management to set up the Archer Academy. It must be about four years then since a raggle-taggle group of parents first met to discuss how we could get our local schools and our local authority to address a chronic shortage of local comprehensive education.

We didn’t know each other, knew little about the finer workings of the education system and had no desire or intention of setting up a school.

Our hand was somewhat forced by the realisation that: a) no one was willing or able to give us what we wanted and b) that there was huge local support for a local school for local children.

We became reluctant free schoolers and the Archer Academy was born.

the archer academy

We’ve come a long way in a short space of time and it’s incredible to think that the school has become a feature of local life in East Finchley so quickly. It’s just there. Part of our community landscape.

We’ve protected a community asset from development – ensuring that it will benefit local people in perpetuity rather than being turned into houses or flats. Creating fantastic new sport and recreation facilities that in just a few weeks local people will be able to use. I can’t wait for my first game of football on our new pitch!the Archer

And my eldest child will start school in September too – along with 149 other children from our local primary schools.

Regardless of controversy and debate about free schools – and I remain sceptical about the policy overall – I am proud of what we have achieved in establishing the Archer Academy. I have no doubt that is has helped to address unmet need in local educational provision that thousands of children will benefit from over the years ahead. But more than that, it has strengthened our community and generated significant social value.

Connections have been made within the community – bridging and bonding – which did not exist before. High quality sport and leisure facilities have been created which are open for community use outside of school hours and in numerous ways the school community – our students, parents, staff and governors – are contributing to local community life. Whether it’s collecting clothes for local refugees, or performing at the East Finchley Festival. We are working in partnership with numerous local businesses, charities and community groups – special mentions here for the ever wonderful GLH and Dan & De Carlo’s – to, in the words of D&D’s Danny Gates “…create one big family within the local community.”

local schools for local kids

Three years. It feels like a lifetime. Time flies…

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Free School with 17 pupils highlights DfE shortcomings

News emerged on Friday that a new free school in Brixton has opened with just 17 of the 120 pupils they planned to take. The Trinity Academy has opened its doors to year 7 (11 year olds) on a site that the Department for Education purchased for £18m but the planned admissions have not materialised. Clearly the school has satisfied DfE that it will be viable in the long term, but the affair lends more weight to criticism of the government’s free schools programme.

I can see free schools as potential options where local provision is inadequate – whether that’s due to the poor quality of available provision or because of a lack of places. And there are certainly parts of the country which have schools that are performing poorly or too few places (or too few places in the sort of schools that parents want). Where provision is good and places are available in line with parental demand there should be no grounds for justifying huge amounts of public money on opening new schools. That is precisely what free school critics have argued, and with some justification.

The situation in Lambeth is worth looking at. In terms of performance, Lambeth’s schools achieved well above national averages in the proportion of pupils making expected progress in English and maths and in GCSE results.

 % of pupils making expected progress % of pupils achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs % achieving A*-C in English and maths GCSE
English Maths 2013
England – state funded schools only 70.4% 70.8% 60.6% 61.3%
Lambeth 76.6% 78.8% 65.9% 67.2%

 

Of the 14 mainstream secondary schools in Lambeth with Ofsted inspection reports available, four are rated ‘outstanding’, eight ‘good’ and two are rated ‘satisfactory’. [Under the new Ofsted inspection framework ‘satisfactory’ has been replaced by ‘requires improvement’, but the assessments in Lambeth were carried out under the old regime].

 

With 85% of state-funded secondary schools rated good or better, Lambeth’s figures compare well with national figures, which, before the introduction of the new Ofsted framework was 79% receiving the top two ratings. Whilst a borough-wide perspective can mask local options to parents, it’s hard to suggest that local provision is inadequate.

 

The situation is compounded by the fact that figures from Lambeth Council, where the school is located, show that there is a surplus of secondary school places in the Borough. Figures suggest the Borough will have a surplus of 226 secondary school places this year.

So, both in terms of available places and the quality of provision, there appears to be no need for a free school to open in the area. The lack of take up by parents appears to back this up.

Which begs the question, why was this application to open a new free school ever allowed to progress?

DfE is supposed to ensure that free school applications can evidence sufficient demand for their proposals. At the Archer Academy, we had over 1,100 local parents expressing interest in sending their children to our school and we received 350 applications in our first year (for 150 places). Trinity Academy apparently received 90 applications for 120 places. This information would have been known back in December 2013 and DfE should have moved quickly to avoid this situation from arising. Having a small number of spare places is one thing, but to have 85% of places untaken is unacceptable.

We’ve had far too many of these free school fiascos. Until DfE introduces sufficient checks to ensure situations like this are not allowed to happen, it will be hard to argue that free schools are a credible option for addressing a lack of local provision.

Free schools are not a panacea to all our educational challenges and the sooner DfE wakes up to this, the better.

 

[1] http://www.education.gov.uk/cgi-bin/schools/performance/group.pl?qtype=LA&no=208&superview=sec

Does Labour’s response to Al-Madinah offers signs of an education policy?

Newly appointed Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, had a first opportunity to get his teeth into his new brief, with the furore about the Al-Madinah free school’s damning Ofsted inspection. So it was interesting to hear how he responded and whether the reported shift in policy from his predecessor, Stephen Twigg, was in evidence.

Twigg had previously said he would stop any new free schools being opened, but would support parent-led academies (whatever they are). I listened closely to Hunt being interviewed about the Al-Madinah inspection to see if there were any shifts in policy, however subtle. What Hunt seemed to be saying was that free schools might be okay, if they were de-politicised and the “ideology removed” from them. He reaffirmed what Stephen Twigg had said about wanting to support parent-led academies and supporting parents who wanted to get more involved in their children’s schools. He then went on to say that what this meant in practice really boiled down to three fundamental concerns about free schools:

1)      That they should only be set up in areas of demand

2)      That they should only employ qualified teachers

3)      They must be transparent and accountable, particularly in relation to their finances.

I have to say I agree with him on all three points and my own experience with the Archer Academy has followed all of these principles.

That free schools (or indeed any school) should only open in areas where we need them, seems quite obvious, but it does get complicated when you start to unpick it. We do have a massive shortage of school places, so a great many areas are in need. But it also reflects the impossible job of local authorities, who have a statutory duty to provide education for children, but find they have diminishing  control and influence over the schools in their area. This applies to all academies, not just free schools. Ideologically the free schools programme is currently incompatible with local authorities coordinating place management and this is something that must be addressed. But there is also a question over what happens in areas where they are in need of excellent schools, but they have poor performing schools. Is that demand? Clearly parents in those areas could (and should) be demanding more. How can poorly performing academies be improved when they are accountable only to the Secretary of State? There are some issues to work through here.

Part of the solution lies in point 3 – the accountability of schools. Much could, and should, be done to strengthen the accountability of schools to their local communities. This is partly about financial transparency, but it is also about ethos and culture and the extent to which the school and its leadership team see themselves as being accountable to the community. It is embedded deeply into the DNA of the Archer Academy, but only because we chose to make it that way. There is currently very little required of academies to be accountable to parents and the wider community and this must be addressed.

As someone who is very interested in open data and its potential to strengthen accountability, I am keen to see how our school can play a leading role in opening up our data as far as possible. I think this helps to give parents information about the school that they can use to make more informed decisions and how the governors to account. It also enables third-party developers to find new uses of the data – providing new insights from mashing-up, interrogating and visualising our data. It’s perhaps a bit of an unknown quantity, but my work with Data Unity has given me confidence that there is value in opening up data.

As (exempt) charities, academies receiving considerable tax benefits. The social contract that charitable status is based on, is that in return for this privilege, there must be some public benefit. Part of the deal involves being accountable to beneficiaries – which in the case of schools is obviously pupils (and their parents). Financial accountability is a key part of this.

How can we expect families to be able to hold schools to account if they do not have access to information on which to base decisions and inform opinions?

I not aware of many schools that are embracing open data – but I would be very keen to hear of any examples – but I think it is an exciting agenda with many opportunities to be explored.

When is a free school not a free school? When it’s a parent academy

Stephen Twigg’s speech this week was long overdue. Labour have been woefully quiet on education policy, despite Michael Gove’s high profile and contentious policy agenda. It was a first chance to hear how Labour plans to position itself on education at the next election and, though lots of questions remain, there were some interesting ideas to pick through.

Image

Edge Foundation photo used under creative commons

One of the problems that Labour has in developing its education policy is that it was them who instigated the academies programme, which Michael Gove’s free schools has extended. And whilst they may want to rein in any attempts to further commercialise our education system, they cannot easily undo the process that has led to over 3,000 academies operating in England.

I must admit to raising an eyebrow at the announcement Labour would call a halt to the free schools programme. I hadn’t anticipated this. But it’s not quite as it would appear, as although there would be no new free schools, ‘parent academies’ would be introduced. As one of the founders of a parent-led free school, I don’t really see the distinction – something that junior education Minister Elizabeth Truss was keen to point out. I can see that free schools as a ‘brand’ may be considered toxic to Labour – and to the teaching unions – but are parent academies really so different?

I think the objective – though one you won’t read in Stephen Twigg’s speech – is to turn the tap off on the growing number of commercial education providers that are establishing free schools and academy chains. Whilst Labour may find it hard to argue against parents having control over their children’s education, they may be more concerned by the dominance of the private sector within the state education system. There seems to be a silent battle starting over the introduction of profit-making into schools – with Gove apparently keen and Labour (and the unions) lining up against it….but with little explicit reference to it (yet).

Stephen Twigg was keen to emphasise the point that maintained schools should be afforded the same freedoms as academies without having to convert:

“So if a freedom is afforded to an academy and it drives up standards, that freedom should be available to all schools.”

However the key point here, in my view, is whether or not the innovation drives up standards or not. The evidence base on free schools’ performance is clearly still in its infancy and whilst there is more data on academies, there’s still relatively little. Can we be certain which innovations are driving up standards? Introducing freedoms that do little or nothing to improve standards – and may actually have an adverse effect – is not the answer…but I worry that such subtleties will be lost in implementation.

The other area of Twigg’s speech that I found interesting was the reference to local oversight and the news that David Blunkett will head up a review looking at this. A lack of local collaboration, coordination and accountability is a potential area of weakness in the current system. Whilst there is nothing to prevent free schools from being collaborative, transparent and accountable – as we have tried to show with the Archer Academy – it is currently very much down to the ethos and vision of free school founders. I believe that more could be done to embed a culture of collaboration and greater accountability to parents and the community within schools – whether maintained schools or academies. I hope that both Labour and the Conservatives will look seriously at ways to empower parents and teachers to deliver improved outcomes for pupils and communities. The potential benefits of excellent schools are not limited simply to academic attainment, or even the realisation of wider outcomes for pupils’ development. The benefits can extend to the whole community and can deliver tangible social, economic and environmental impact.

Regardless of whether we get more free schools or parent academies after the next general election, my overriding hope is that our education policy supports parents to play a meaningful role in schools in their communities.

School Days – my day with LiteracyActionNet & Ealing Fields

I spent yesterday discussing schools…nothing particularly unusual there, except that for the most part I wasn’t on Archer Academy business, but talking to others interested in education.

During the day I attended a very interesting seminar organised by Lemos & Crane as part of their LiteracyActionNet project, looking at parental engagement in literacy (and education more generally). Among plenty of interesting presentations and discussion, the thing I found most enlightening was the presentation given by Stephen Hall of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) on what impacts on attainment.

The EEF have looked at (and now started to fund) different approaches and interventions and what difference they make to children’s attainment levels. Their findings – which are inevitably changing as they fund and evaluate new projects – make for fascinating reading and challenge some traditional assumptions about the effectiveness of particular methods or interventions. The EEF have sought to quantify the impact in the number of additional months impact the approach has (on average) on children’s educational attainment levels.

Their research suggests that while giving feedback to pupils and to teachers has an average impact of +8 months, ability grouping actually has a detrimental effect on attainment (-1 month). They suggest that school uniform, physical environment, performance related pay and teaching assistants all have (on average) no impact on attainment. But things like peer tutoring, collaborative learning and ‘learning to learn’ strategies all make a significant difference – +5 months or more. Of course, just because school uniform and teaching assistants may not make a difference to attainment levels, they could have benefits on other things…but nonetheless I found the evidence really challenged some of my assumptions about what matters and where we ought to be investing resources.

It’s well worth having a look at the EEF’s evidence.

In the evening, I went to talk to some of the parents behind the proposal to establish the Ealing Fields School in West London. They are, like the Archer Academy’s founders, a group of parents attempting to address a desperate need for secondary school places in their community. The group hope to open in 2015 and are in the process of developing their proposal and building local support for the school. Sitting around the kitchen table brought back many memories of the early days in the development of the Archer Academy and also made me realise quite how far we’ve come.

In many respects the Ealing Fields group are in a better position than we were at the same time in our development. They have solid educational expertise on which to draw and more time to develop their proposal (ours was submitted just two months after deciding we were going to apply). It also appears that the process of applying to set up a free school is getting better with each round – there is now a rolling programme for applications and more support available from the New Schools Network than was the case when we were applying.

What I realised in talking to the group was how important community engagement and communications is to the whole project. Whilst the educational expertise of Archer founders was limited to just a few of the group, we were more experienced in comms and engagement. I think this was crucial in securing community support, developing our vision in a way that reflected the aspirations of our community and building strong foundations that have stood us in good stead throughout the process. Although, of course, the development of a school must be based on a sound vision and educational plan, the importance of local buy-in is without question a ‘deal breaker’. Without it, I cannot believe we would ever have been able to establish the school, or that any other group of parents will be able to.

Having worked in community engagement for many years, I have seen far too much shoddy practice being sold as ‘effective engagement’. Free school groups must ensure that they do not accept just ‘good enough engagement’ but aspire to something much better and much more meaningful. At the Archer Academy we constantly asked ourselves ‘just how good could this school be?’, this same aspirational thinking needs to extend to how we approach community engagement and communication too.

Middle class meddling for seeking comprehensive schooling? Guilty as charged

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.