For those of you who haven’t seen it, here is the nice fluffy article that appeared in the Nottingham Post shortly after the start of the new school year, obviously based on a ‘Press Release’ and photo call by Nottingham Free School. The Post chose not to do any proper journalism: no awkward questions asked, no contrary views sought from opposition groups like HOOS.They even chose not to publish a letter sent by us.
So, here are some of the concerns we have. Obviously, we opposed the setting up of NFS in the first place. We argued that it couldn’t set up a proper school building in time and, even the article, seems to suggest this was the case. We know from a previous Post article, that they have only managed enough conversion of the old factory building they are using to enable them to get going (just) and that more building work will continue whilst the school is operating.
We also argued that they couldn’t attract sufficient students to make the school and, more importantly, the education of its pupils, viable or efficient. In the early days, the Torch Group target was 120 students, later reduced to 90. As the article makes clear, they’ve started with 79. On the face of it, that may not sound bad and it’s certainly better than some start-up free schools elsewhere have managed. But, let’s take a closer look.
In the current climate, all secondary schools work hard to attract students into their Year 7 cohorts – and we know, from experience in secondary schools in the area, that a school attracting fewer than 100 will be deeply worried – about how they will manage that small a cohort and, in the longer run, about the long-term viability of the school. Frankly, 79, is not viable in terms of practicality such as employing enough teaching staff with the right specialisms. For example, with that number they presumably will be teaching in three groups of about 26/27 each. For core subjects such as English, Maths and Science, they are likely to want to timetable all three groups at the same time so that there can be ‘streaming’ and the possibility of moving students up and down ‘streams’. So that will require three each of English, Maths and Science specialists, or nine teachers; but, according to the article, they have only ten teaching staff in total, one of whom is the Head. So who is teaching Languages, History, Geography, RE, PSE, ICT, Technology, Art, Music and PE? Even if some of those teachers, at Year 7 level, can teach two or even three ‘specialisms’ this can only work if some teachers are teaching well outside their specialist ‘comfort zones’, which will obviously compromise quality, especially as the children move through and demand more specialist teaching, or staff will be constantly travelling from Toot Hill, Bingham (NFS was originally planned to share staff with Trent Bridge but, of course, that never happened). Incidentally, the overall ‘pupil-teacher ratio’ of 7.9 is INCREDIBLY low, graphic evidence of poor ‘value for money’.
Seventy-nine – not brilliant for extra-curricular actives, either : sports teams, drama productions, music groups and so on, unless, of course, the poor kids are constantly being transported to Bingham at the end of school (large bill for transport costs?).
Seventy-nine. According to the NFS website, the school is the result of there being ‘overwhelming demand’ from local parents. Seventy-nine is overwhelming?
At a time of continuing austerity, cuts to Local Authority funding and welfare, suppression of public service pay, how much of our money, tax-payers’ money, is being lavished on these ideological projects? In the case of NFS, we intend to do some more delving – we already know Torch had £180000 BEFORE they got their hands on the Courtaulds building. That will have required money for conversion and, of course, teachers and support staff need to be paid. Even without our research it is blindingly obvious that for this school to function at all it will have needed a hefty subsidy from somewhere.
Other things we would like to know – the questions we may well be putting in a FOI request are: How many students are from ethnic minorities? How many have English as a second language? How many are on ‘free school meals’ and thus qualify for the Pupil Premium? How many have Special Educational Needs? With this information we will be able to judge how well the first ‘intake’ reflects the area in which the school has opened.