Are Ixworth and Stanton Free School proposers misleading parents?

As I have already blogged about this week that the proposers of a free school in the Ixworth and Stanton area held a meeting at Ixworth Free School for parents from Ixworth, Beyton and Blackbourne Middle Schools. I have already documented their refusal to allow me to attend this meeting which at first was put down to a "lack of space" but continued despite this being clearly revealed as a lie by parents who attended the first meeting who reported plenty of space in the hall.

I am grateful to a number of parents who have sent me detailed accounts of these meetings and copies of the documents circulated by the group.

What I have really wanted to work out is why this group would go to such lengths to stop their identities being revealed and to stop members of the public attending this meeting.

I think I have worked out why. But first some more about the meetings and what happened at them.

The Meetings

It is clear that the main backers of the free school are a combination of two Tory politicians - Cllr Joanna Spicer and Matthew Hancock MP with the Heads and Chair of Governors of Ixworth Middle and Blackbourne (Stanton) Middle School. They all sat on the platform at the meeting except Matthew Hancock MP who was not there but a letter from him was read out at the meeting.

In fact both Ixworth and Blackboure sent invitations to parents on school letterhead and parents were greeted at the door by Glenice Francis,  Head of Ixworth Middle.

Beyton Middle sent the letter to parents (but on Blackbourne Middle letterhead) and were conspicuous by their absence from the platform at the meeting. Unsurprising really as the free school proposal would mean for sure that Beyton Middle site will close rather than stay open as part of Thurston Community School.

Three parents Richard Combe, Wendy Canham and Steve Larder were also on the platform.

The meeting was Chaired by Gerarld Brown Ixworth's Chair of Governors although apparently the school's governing body as a whole have yet to decide if it supports the free school proposal.

Two Tier

It is clear that despite advancing a proposal for an 11-18 school some people such as Ixworth's Chair of Governors Gerard Brown are clearly deeply wedded to the three tier system. I won't rehearse the arguments on this topic, I am personally more in favour of a two tier system, but what really does not work at all is a mixture of the two systems.

At the meeting Gerard Brown continued to advance the view that the three tier system is best and was clearly using this to tap into residual support from parents to retain the middle schools.

But the proposal is not to do that. The proposed school is an 11 to 18 two tier school and not a middle school.


Both in the leaflet and at the meeting the group made some bold suggestions about funding. The leaflet suggests:
"Free schools receive significantly more funding than their local authority counterparts"
This claim is just untrue. A free school's revenue funding is the same as a local authority school but it receives the "topslice" that the Local Authority would usually keep to provide certain services on a County wide basis. In Suffolk this is 8%.

But at least some of that extra 8% needs to be spent on buying the services the Local Authority would usually provide. Academies are funded in exactly the same way (which is unsurprising as Free Schools are just academies set up from scratch).

Now it is true such a school at Ixworth would need a lot of money to be converted into a 700 space 11-18 school from the smaller 9-13 Middle School it is. At Clare the cost was around £5 million.

The main reason the Thurston Partnership proposal suggested the use of Beyton Middle as an extra campus for Thurston Community College was the fact that it was originally built as a 700 space 11-16 secondary modern school and would need very little money spending on it.

So the school would be expensive to set up but it would not be awash with day to day extra funding in the way the proposers are suggesting. And as a smaller school it would actually get less value per child than the larger Thurston college.

Travel Times

Another big part of the argument has been travel times and distances. Hancock suggested in the EADT that:
“Post-11 schools at Breckland and in Ixworth or Stanton would mean local children will have the chance to be educated locally instead of having to travel much further every day to school,”
But again this claim is mis-leading. For a start the move to two tier will mean that pretty much all children will have less of a journey than they do now in Y5 and Y6 as they will stay at more local primary schools. Ixworth's Chair of Governors strangely didn't advance that as an argument in support of a move to two tier....

And it is already the case that Y9, Y10 and Y11 children travel to Thurston so there would be no change if the Thurston Pyramid proposal went ahead except that some children may have shorter journeys to the Beyton campus.

So journey time changes are marginal and really only affect children in Y7 and Y 8 (11/12)  who are much more able to travel than the Y5 and Y6 primary age children. And by Suffolk standards these are hardly long journeys, you can see the table below for an indication of journey times:

To Thurston College
To Beyton School
To Stanton School
To Ixworth School
4 miles (10 mins)
2.1 miles (6 mins)
3.3 miles (8 mins)
6.7 miles (14 mins)
8.8 miles (19 mins)
3.3 miles (8 mins)
2 miles (5 mins)
8.8 miles (19 mins)
2.1 miles (6 mins)
2 miles (5 mins)
6.7 miles (14 mins)
4 miles (10 mins)

This data is from Google maps and journey times and distances are from school to school

I speak from experience here. My own son has travelled each day to school in Eye since he was 11 in Year 7 and by  a "round the houses" bus route the 9 mile journey take 50 minutes. And we have had to pay for this ourselves. Unlike what has happened at Clare and what is suggested to happen with this proposal the County Council did not pay for me to exercise choice for my child....

Children from Ixworth face a 4 mile journey and Stanton 7 miles (To Thurston College).

"Done Deal"?

Matthew Hancock has made much of the support of Gove and the DfE for the Free School. In the letter to parents calling the meeting the organisers state:
This option is further supported by Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) and the Department for Education.
What Gove actually said in parliament (as quoted on Matthew Hancock's own website) is that he supported Hancock's who asked him to:
...join me in urging parents not only in Brandon, at the Breckland middle school, but in Ixworth and in Stanton to put forward expressions of interest in joining the free schools—whether or not they come through, and I hope that they do—in order to ensure that the project gets off the ground?”
So Gove is welcoming an application not "supporting" the proposal.

In any case Gove goes on further to claim in a statement that is clearly party political:
“Absolutely. One of the great things about Suffolk as a local authority is that its leader and its lead member for education recognise that, at a time of change, embracing academies and free schools can complement the already great state schools for which they are responsible. As for visionary leadership in local government, you have to go a long way to beat Suffolk.” 
And as for the idea that Suffolk County Council has provided "visionary leadership". This seems quite incredible and is something I have not even heard Suffolk Conservatives suggesting!

The overall effect of this is misleading. It is like a boss saying to a staff member "I would welcome an application for that new job from you" and the staff member telling everyone he has got the job. Hardly the same thing.

Why the secrecy?

I think the reason for the secrecy is because the backers of the free school want to be able to make these kind of mis-leading claims without being challenged. It is hard to challenge anonymous groups and much easier to challenge people when you know who they are.

The restriction on meetings I think had the same reason, to ensure that they got less challenge so that mis-leading claims were not put under as much scrutiny as they might have been.


There are a number of questions that remain about the free school proposal. Is it really needed? Will it be viable in the longer term? Is spending £5 million on the Ixworth site really worth it when Beyton was purpose built as a 700 pupil 11 to 16 school? Is there any serious prospect of a viable sixth form?

The group seem desperate to get parents to sign pieces of paper saying they support a proposed free school. I am sure plenty will sign. After all they are being offered a "free lunch" by the proposers. The beloved middle school in Ixworth will continue, with money no object on set up costs an much more spending per pupil ongoing. Transport costs will be magically paid. Who wouldn't sign?

A few year's down the line reality will hit. There could be two schools with fewer pupils not able to offer as full a curriculum and the "free lunch" money all spent. Parents might then realise that there is no such thing as a "free" school and wonder if the proposers mis-lead them.

They might wonder if the idea more about advancing Matthew Hancock's political career, getting votes in the 2013 County Council elections for Joanna Spicer and keeping a job for Ixworth Middle's Head Glenice Francis...

Facebook Group

As I blogged yesterday the group have set up a closed Facebook group. I applied to join it and had my application rejected. Even worse they then threw anybody who happened to be a friend on Facebook of me out of the group with no explanation irrespective of where they lived or their opinions on the issue.

I have now set up a new open group to allow free discussion. Everyone is welcome whatever their views and free discussion is encouraged. Join the Ixworth and Stanton Free School Facebook Group
Ixworth Free School 2319684229918340985

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