Norbury councillor questions decision to allow Free School

Plans for a three-form-entry, primary Free School in Norbury could yet encounter some Town Hall opposition, with at least one local Croydon councillor already expressing her strong misgivings about the scheme.

Free Schools have been introduced by the ConDem coalition government, ostensibly as “all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community”, according to the education ministry. The schools are funded directly from Whitehall, and therefore fall outside the control of local education authorities, such as Croydon.

The Free School schemes are widely regarded with suspicion by many education professionals, who see them as a Trojan Horse for the introduction of selective education.

That one of the first Free Schools has been developed by Toby Young, the son of a peer who failed most of his GCEs yet managed to get a place at Oxford, who is best known as the author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, a book which borrowed heavily on Young’s real-life experiences, has done nothing to win over Free School sceptics.

Norbury’s planned Free School is to use the old Age Concern UK building – notably lacking in outdoor space for playtime or sport – and is planned to open in September 2014, taking in 90 five-year-olds in the first year. Such a school would at least go some way to address the acute shortage of primary school places in the north of Croydon.

A decision on whether to grant funding for the school, from the Department of Education, is expected next year.

Called the Advance School, the driving force behind it is Russell King, a Balham resident who is a Conservative councillor in Wandsworth, where he is the cabinet member for planning and transport. A former banker (his employers went bust four years ago), he has re-trained to become a primary school teacher, according to his own Linked In profile.

“He hopes to work in an inner-city school when he graduates, helping children from deprived backgrounds,” says King’s profile on the Wandsworth Conservatives’ website.

Given the close collaboration going on between the Tory-controlled councils in Wandsworth and Croydon over the privatisation of the boroughs’ public library services, King’s involvement in setting up what is basically a commercial education business in Norbury, funded from the public purse, may require some careful scrutiny.

Certainly, preliminary discussions about establishing the Norbury Free School are understood to have taken place with Tim Pollard, Croydon’s cabinet member for children, families and learning, his brief straddling not only schools, but also libraries.

Maggie Mansell: Free Schools could draw much-needed resources from existing schools

Norbury’s local councillors, all from Croydon’s opposition Labour group, were left uninformed about the plans for the Advance School. Not until after the school distributed leaflets to households in the neighbourhood late last month did King approach Norbury councillors to arrange a meeting to discuss his plans.

“I am opposed to the policy,” Norbury councillor Maggie Mansell told Inside Croydon.

“It is likely to take resource away from other schools, when the government cuts funds to the councils to fund these schools. I have concerns that the support now available to a school with difficulties at the council will not be available from the civil service ‘supporting’ thousands of free schools.”

It is entirely possible that by the time the Advance School opens its gates for the first time, Croydon Town Hall may have been under Labour control for four months, following the 2014 local elections.

King and his Advance School – which is promising two teachers in every maths and English class – will then find they are forced to work more closely with Mansell and her Labour colleagues.

“If the Free School is set up, I would hope to work constructively with them to support the needs of local children,” Mansell said.

“But I hope that parents will have confidence in their local schools which are performing well. Clearly extra places are needed and I will support the council in developing additional places.”

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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3 Responses to Norbury councillor questions decision to allow Free School

  1. Russell King says:

    Thank you for your article featuring our proposed school. It is unfortunate that you did not ask us for more information before publishing as there are a number of inaccuracies in the article which need to be corrected:

    1. You leave the impression that free schools may result in the introduction of selective education. All free schools must comply with the statutory schools admissions code which forbids selection by ability. The Advance School offering is specifically designed to make a major impact on children from deprived backgrounds and/or who have English as an additional language. We would actively encourage children from these backgrounds to apply to our school.
    2. You describe the Age UK building as lacking outdoor space. A quick look on Google Maps will show the very large playing field available just behind the building that is barely used during the school day.
    3. You have described the Advance School as a commercial education business. In fact, the Advance School will be run by a charity. All free schools are run by charities.
    4. It is incorrect to say that leaflets were distributed before we informed local Councillors. In fact, we contacted all local politicians before distributing leaflets.
    5. We will work constructively with whoever runs the Council. Many Labour Councils across the country have been welcoming of free schools and are actively promoting them.

    • We thank Russell King for his comment. It is a shame that he did not check his assertions for accuracy (as we did) or manage to distinguish between his opinion and facts.

      Let’s mark the new teacher’s homework…

      1. You leave the impression that free schools may result in the introduction of selective education…

      Incorrect. We state the DfE’s policy in respect of Free Schools, and simply state that educationalists, many of whom have considerably more experience of teaching than King yet has, and who fear that Free Schools may be the thin edge of the wedge for selection.

      2. You describe the Age UK building as lacking outdoor space…

      You have that correct, well done. It is a statement of fact.

      … A quick look on Google Maps will show the very large playing field available just behind the building that is barely used during the school day.

      That’s as maybe. However, until or unless King succeeds in gaining permission for his school to use those playing fields, pupils at his school will remain without play space. Black mark for Mr King.

      3. You have described the Advance School as a commercial education business. In fact, the Advance School will be run by a charity. All free schools are run by charities.

      Another poor answer. Having charitable status does not prevent an organisation operating on a business basis. Instead of “profits”, they have “surpluses”. Some of Croydon’s most successful businesses have charitable status and offer education services – Whitgift and Trinity School among them. The principle difference with King’s school is that his source of funding is the Department for Education.

      4. It is incorrect to say that leaflets were distributed before we informed local Councillors. In fact, we contacted all local politicians before distributing leaflets.

      No it is not. We checked, and at least one local councillor knew nothing of King’s proposal until they saw the leaflets.

      5. We will work constructively with whoever runs the Council. Many Labour Councils across the country have been welcoming of free schools and are actively promoting them.

      Grade for Mr King’s homework? Nothing better than a D+

  2. As a local councillor for the area my concern about the Advance Free School is its proposed location on a valuable and much needed playing field in Highbury Avenue. Despite claiming to consult the community on its location, the school’s website announces ‘We’re delighted to confirm that we will have a custom-built school based at Highbury Playing Fields on Highbury Avenue’.
    Yes, we do need more school places, but under no circumstances should we be building on playing fields, especially in such a densely populated area.
    Let’s have some genuine consultation on this proposal.

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