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.
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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- Free schools: the research lab of state education? (guardian.co.uk)
- Michael Gove accused of wasting money on free schools (independent.co.uk)