(Published in the Brentwood Gazette 08.10.14)
Last month, as part of a Gazette article on the changing dynamics of school provision locally, Stephen Drew, the headteacher of Brentwood County High School, said, “It is important that we consider the removal of the local authority to plan centrally. That is something that has inherent risks.”
Now that central government, rather than any local body, has given initial approval to a new “free school” in Ongar we are about to find out again what he means.
Whether you are in favour or not, fundamentally, introducing another secondary school in an area where places already exist for all school age children will have an impact on resources available to existing schools. The extent of this will not be immediately apparent but should have been the subject of an impact assessment carried out as part of the approvals process.
It would be good if this were shared so we can all understand the risk to our current schools. Sadly the Department for Education (DfE) have not released this information in similar cases for over a year after a new school has opened.
However, initial approval to open in less than a year has immediate implications for the whole community of Ongar, Brentwood and beyond.
I am one of hundreds of local parents with children in Year 6 who are currently in the process of selecting my preferences for a secondary school for next year. The process is co-ordinated by Essex County Council (ECC) and all parents must go through it to be allocated an existing school.
But initial approval has come too late for the Ongar free school to be included. For the second time in three years, a parallel process will now have to be provided. Those with an interest in attending the new school will apply separately, with no commitment required, whilst also selecting preferences for existing schools via ECC.
They will then effectively hold two offers and will not need to decide where to send their children until the start of the new school year.
The implications of this for resource planning in existing schools are obvious but it can also cause issues for the DfE in deciding when to press ahead with opening a school and when it may be better to defer. A free school has just opened in Brixton with just 17 pupils after £18M was spent on the site despite a year group capacity of 120 and 90 offers made.
Last month I was a signatory to a letter (1), drafted in conjunction with affected residents of Wivenhoe, calling on ECC to scrap their new school transport policy which states that they will only pay the cost of bus travel to the nearest school to your house if it is more than 3 miles away. This will affect pupils joining new schools from September 2015.
If the free school opens next year, Ongar residents will no longer be eligible for subsidised travel and yet they will be applying to schools in neighbouring towns this month. This is despite many having older siblings in those schools already.
Aside from settling on one of four temporary sites for the new school, recruitment and pre-opening activity, the proposers of the Ongar Academy must now negotiate and sign a funding agreement with the DfE before they can become a legal entity. The 2010 Academies Act states that before this can be done a statutory public consultation must take place. This is intended to give the wider community, not just primary school parents, an opportunity to express their view on whether that school should be given final approval.
So Ongar residents with children in existing schools or those, such as Keep Ongar Green, with traffic or environmental concerns should be able to have their view taken into account before any funding agreement is signed.
Indeed, as we will be funding the school, everyone can legitimately have their say and I’d encourage you to do so.
(1) School transport letter and further detail is available here: http://wp.me/P2dr6s-iQ