Full statement on Nottingham Free School

The following statement was issued to the Nottingham Post, at their request, for use in an article about the Nottingham Free School (see previous post):

“We oppose the proposed NFS in principle and on practical grounds.

The school does not exist except as a website – at the time of writing we do not even know in which area of Nottingham it will be located although we have heard rumours about Sherwood. It has little over a year to turn whatever premises they can find into a fully-functioning school.

We believe for these reasons there is every chance that the school will not happen. To be viable it must attract enough parents of children currently in Year 5 in primary school — they have said they hope for 90 (three classes) in the first year. That’s a very small secondary school and they will struggle to provide facilities and opportunities for that number of students. They will also struggle to afford the specialist teachers they will need unless staff will be constantly travelling back and forth from Toot Hill and Meden, the other schools in the Torch Group.

But how can parents make an informed choice? Throughout September, secondary schools will be opening up for visits by year 6 children and their parents, open evenings where parents can see the facilities, look at children’s work, talk to teachers and probably to other older children. They can talk to parents of children already at the school, go online and read OFSTED reports and check examination performance. They cannot do any of this for the NFS. In which case, how can they possibly put NFS as first choice on the form they must complete for the Local Authority by 1 October?

There are a number of good schools in the area and no shortage of places so the NFS is not really adding any dimension in terms of choice. It doesn’t even have a distinct character such as a religious ethos, which some free schools have. Looking at their website, they seem to by saying the sorts of things all schools would say and in curriculum terms, they are offering Latin and LAMDA public speaking exams to make them a bit different!

More generally, we object to free schools in principle. They are set up to be unaccountable to the local community via the Local Authority and we fear, in the long term, chains of free schools and academies will run ‘for profit’, responding to shareholder interests rather than those of parents and local people.

Free schools take money from other schools in two ways. Firstly, any money needed for ‘capital expenditure’ such as refurbishing old premises or building new ones (as will be needed by the NFS) comes from a finite ‘pot’ meaning other schools lose out. Whilst there are still tales of crumbling schools awaiting the most basic refurbishment (see the recent story about Newark Academy in the Guardian etc) it is immoral to put money into new and unnecessary ‘free’ schools. Secondly, if the NFS somehow manages to attract pupils who WOULD have attended another local school, that school loses out on the per capita money it would otherwise have received. People also need to be aware that the  NFS and other proposed ‘free schools’ (such as the unsuccessful Trent Bridge Free School, another Torch proposal) have received support from a government quango called the New Schools Network which received half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money from the exchequer last year.

There is no evidence that free schools ‘raise standards’. The NFS doesn’t exist so can’t claim to be outstanding, good or anything at all. In Sweden, where the idea came from, the evidence is patchy to say the least with one political side arguing against. Recently one of the companies owning a chain of free schools in Sweden closed four schools because they just weren’t making money!

In the UK a primary ‘free’ school in West Sussex was recently judged ‘inadequate’ by OFSTED. The reality is that ‘free’ schools can be good, bad or indifferent, just like any other school and the evidence suggests that factors like good teaching and good leadership are the keys to being a good school, not the style or status of the school. NFS at the moment doesn’t have any teachers so we can’t say whether they will be good, outstanding or inadequate (in fact, we won’t really know until their first OFSTED,  whenever that is, or their first set of GCSE results in about 2019!)  As for the leadership, one of the NFS  ‘selling points’ is the people leading Torch have been behind Toot Hill but we don’t know how they’ll be involved in the day-to-day management of NFS. As I said before, it’s all a bit vague and, as a parent, I wouldn’t gamble on something so untried and untested, when there are other good choices with a proven track record.

In short, we believe the NFS is not needed, will take much-needed funding from other schools and offers nothing that other schools cannot offer. We think it is unlikely to attract enough pupils for it to be a viable school and we would urge parents to exercise their right to choose one of the good local schools rather than gamble on this one.

Anyone wishing to find out more could visit the HOOS website, visit the stall outside Sherwood Co-op Saturday 13 July, 11 am and, if wishing to oppose the NFS, sign the petition on ‘change.org‘.”

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