Free School Consultations. Like letting property developers carry out their own planning inquiry

Carlton Colville News and Cards, Strange choice
 for a school consultation meeting
My previous blog post detailed allegations made on Twitter about an incident at one of the Beccles Free School Consultation meetings. The suggestion was that a "member of the anti-academies alliance reduced staff working for the free school to tears".

Having been supplied with more information by the DfE and spoken to some of the people who were present I have managed to work out a bit more about what seems to have happened.

  • The incident took place at the Carlton Colville consultation meeting that regular readers of my blog may remember took place, bizarrely, at a newsagents early in the morning
  • The person concerned is not a member of the anti-academies alliance and in fact had never heard of the organisation. He is a member of the Lowestoft Coalition Against the Cuts, an organisation of trade unions and left wing groups opposing coalition cuts
  • I have met this person myself during last year's library demonstrations and I do not think that he is intimidating
  • The person concerned was outside the consultation for most of the time asking people to sign a petition which a good number of people did he went in to speak to the staff at the end of the meeting asking if they would distribute his leaflet at the next meeting. They declined and promised to get someone from the people running the consultation - Cambridge Education - to call him back. He left his name and phone number but did not receive a call
  • I understand a number of Carlton Colville residents came to the consultation to object to the additional traffic the temporary location of the school would cause and some elderly residents were concerned that the secondary children might be noisy or even perhaps cause some trouble.
I get the impression that the consultation staff had already had a hard time when this had happened and indeed other people were present and objecting.

I think part of the problem here is that in previous meetings a mis-leading impression had been given to people that Cambridge Education were impartial and appointed by the Department for Education. The EDP reported at a consultation in Beccles that:
Rob Cawley
"The meeting was led by independent adjudicator Rob Cawley, who was appointed by Cambridge Education, the team employed by the Department for Education to see if the bid is viable"
In fact Cambridge Education are project managers working for the Seckford Foundation and employed Rob Cawley, a former Suffolk headteacher who works for another consultancy Leading Schools to lead consultation meetings. Cambridge Education project managed the Norwich Free School.

The Academies Act which was rushed through parliament requires proposers to consult such persons as the person thinks appropriate. There are two obvious serious problems with this approach. Firstly it does not specify who should be consulted and secondly the consultation is carried out by the proposers who have a clear vested interest in the outcome.

It is like allowing a property developer to carry out their own planning inquiry. However fair it actually is nobody will ever believe it was.

I have copies of several emails where Cambridge Education are asked and fail to provide information about the expressions of interest and consultation meetings. It is still far from clear that these meetings were adequately minuted. Verbal comments do not appear to have been recorded contemporaneously.

Likewise some question the petition raised by Sir John Leman High school and again they are hardly impartial. Using opposing data collected by people on either side of an argument is not the best way to make decisions. Update: the petition petition organisers have asked me to point out that the petition was started by a group of local people unhappy with the consultation and not Leman School. The School did go on to promote the petition and collect signatures

In my view what should happen is that the expressions of interest and consultations for all free school applications should be carried out by a genuinely independent organisation. This would allow the DfE to see the true picture of local demand and views and allow them to make a fair and objective judgement on the proposal. The consultation meetings could then not only be conducted fairly but be seen to be fair. This is just as important.

The current process is asking for this kind of problem to happen. If the staff employed by Cambridge Education ended up feeling got at and irritated that morning in Carlton Colville it says more about the the flawed process than the behaviour of either side. I hope that rather than continuing a "he said", "she said" argument about this the DfE can seriously consider a change to the process.

Doing so would be in everyone's best interests and would ensure only the best quality applications get approved and poor quality applications rejected before they cause real problems on the ground.
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