Suffolk Free Schools: Does Cllr Spicer think the Thurston Partnership is "sinister"?

Cllr Joanna Spicer
Once the Ixworth Free School group had finally abandoned their attempts to open in 2013 they decided to join with the Seckford Foundation who plan a chain of free schools across Suffolk. A plan was hatched by Hancock, Spicer and the rest of the group to write to parents first and then issue a press release. The idea was parents wouldn't read about it in the newspapers.

Somewhat predictably all did not go according to plan. Firstly within an hour of the document being release it was published on the Internet (on this blog and its Wikisuffolk sister site amongst other places). Secondly the primary school head teachers in Thurston refused to send the letter out.

Cllr Joanna Spicer was not amused, firing off an angry email to County Council officials (all of the emails referred to are available in full below):
Below is an e mail sent by the FS team at Ixworth to Head Teachers in the Thurston Pyramid. Attached to it is a letter to parents that they requested be sent out.

I saw drafts of both the letter and the e mail and regard them both to have been sensitively and carefully worded and polite and intended to be helpful to parents. There is also a press release that both Matt Hancock and I have been involved with and are quoted in. It was intended that the press release go out today or tomorrow to ensure parents heard the progress report before reading it in the newspaper.

I am sure you have been made aware that every school (except 2 middle schools) have declined to send it out.
OK - so head teachers have the right to that and although the explanations given are confusing and not exactly scientifc - I do fully accept their right to do so. They are under no obligation to be helpful to anyone after all.

But was is worrying - indeed almost sinister - is that the responses to the FS team are all identical and a careless use of forwarding (cut and paste) indicates that there was somewhat of an instruction circulated to agree a common response from the "Thurston Partnership". The Head teachers concerned seem to have been unable to actually write a reply and explanation to the FS team of their own initiative but have been required to use a format approved by the Thurston Partnership.

So to me this begs an important question that I need you to answer for me clearly. What is the Thurston Partnership precisely ?

Have the County Council handed over the total leadership of the Thurston Pyramid to them (excluding middle schools ?). I have looked at their website - they have no contact details and no governance arrangements. Who is their "leader" ? Did SCC authorise them to issue instructions on this to each primary school ? What is the relationship between The TP and the LEA. I am well aware that you handed over to them the original development of 2 tier proposals last summer (and abandoned the original SOR group which included councillors and parish councils). I am also aware that they were asked to write most of the original consultation document as well. 
I asked Cllr Spicer if she was really suggesting that the Thurston Partnership - which is all of the schools in the Thurston pyramid with the exception of the three middle schools - is "sinister". She replied:
Of course I don't think the "Thurston partnership" is "sinister" - I was commenting on some wording.actions relating to e mails I had seen that I am quite sure I was not meant to see ! I am seeking further information about their governance arrangements. 
I strongly believe the LEA (SCC) should lead re-organisation and it is their legal duty which they continue to discharge. 
However, schools themselves need to lead schools - hence my support for academies and free schools. 
This view, however, differs from Government policy which sees groups of schools leading school which prompted Sally Rundell, a senior LA officer to write:
To: Simon White; Phil Whiffing  
Subject: RE: Free School at Ixworth
You don't think Joanna needs reminding re gov policy about schools themselves being the leaders of system change

Sally Rundell
Assistant Director Learning and Improvement
In the end Simon White (Director of Children and Young People's Services) writes back suggesting Spicer is "jumping to assumptions" about the motivation of the primary Headteachers pointing out that Ixwoth Middle Head Glenice Francis had made disparaging  remarks about her feeder primaries at a Cabinet meeting - remarks Cllr Spicer told me she did not agree with:
Dear Joanna 
You may have picked up already that we are trying to broker the same arrangement that we came to in Stour Valley which would allow the Free School to distribute its materials without implying any endorsement from existing schools. 
We have not yet agreed the reorganisation proposal and so at this stage there is not a site for the proposed Free School. 
I think that you are jumping to assumptions about the motivation of the Heads' in being resistant to the request. Relationships between lxworth Middle School and their Primaries became very strained because of the way the Middle School fought its corner. I think the Head would have been better advised not to make disparaging remarks about her own feeder schools in public meetings (as she did at the cabinet meeting I attended). No doubt the Middle School feel aggrieved as well for their own reasons. 
In reality the Free School proposal will in the end have very little to do with the existing Middle School, but at this stage in the process it is hard for any of the people involved to see this. 
Once we have made a decision we will work very hard to rebuild relationships. The "Thurston Partnership" was originally intended to include all the schools in the pyramid, but as you know the Middle Schools did not join. The approach to SOR had to change to reflect the new "balance of power" between the local authority and schools, and we pledged to support a school led proposal to implement SOR. 
From a strategic point of view we should be very grateful to the TP, since they were willing to endorse a solution that was practicable and affordable, yet delivered the key objectives in SOR. Personally I think the Free School will not compromise this at all, and I hope this view will come to be shared with the the whole pyramid as decisions are made by SCC and the DfE. 
We have not (and cannot) give away or delegate our responsibilities to the Thurston Partnership (and there are different responsibilities even within the group of schools depending on their status). The Cabinet will have to take full responsibility for the decisions they make, and so they will be "theirs" not the TPs. 
Simon White
Interestingly Simon White prefixed a draft of this with the words I need to be less formal with JS but it is clear Spicer is only seeing part of the story pressing to follow the Government's free school policies but wanting to retain "control" of  schools by the "LEA" itself an old-fashioned way of describing the Local Authority. In this respect Spicer is out of step with the Government's view that schools should be the "system leaders" of eduction.

Tomorrow how Suffolk County Council's formal response to the DfE was changed for political reasons. Watch out for the "Free School FOI Shorts" as well!
Ixworth Free School 5017726286566557920

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