Is Matthew Hancock playing party politics with children's education?

Matthew Hancock is clearly an ambitious MP keen to be seen to be promoting the “success” of Conservative party “free school” policies that promote “choice”. He has written an article on his website urging parents to support the free school at Ixwoth.

Matthew Hancock and fellow West Suffolk Conservative Joanna Spicer have been the driving force behind the free school from the start. It was striking that more or less as soon as the consultation meeting finished at Stanton the Seckford people present went to speak to Cllr Spicer and other Conservative Party members present.

Sadly Hancock seems to be ignoring genuine concerns that have emerged about the school and does not seem to care that the facts get in the way. Here is my response to the points he makes:

The proposal for a free school at Ixworth has very strong support from local parents, who, given that the decision has been taken to close Middle Schools, are keen to have a choice. When asked, 87% of parents surveyed expressed an interest in the free school, and 75% either definitely or would very likely send their children.

Hancock sadly does not provide any source for these figures but I suspect they come from “expressions of interest” collected by the original “parent group”. This was hardly an impartial “survey” and most of the participants were Ixworth and Stanton Middle school parents with children currently at these schools.

Actually we have some very reliable data on demand for this school from the Suffolk County Council consultation in the Thurston area. This survey that had 864 responses from across the Thurston area showed support for the free school as follows:

In total 51% in favour and 49% against but support was very polarised:

Responses linked to
Beyton Middle Feeder Schools
Beyton Middle School
Blackbourne Middle Feeder Schools
Blackbourne Middle School
Ixworth Middle Feeder Schools
Ixworth Middle School

The strongest support was amongst current Ixworth Middle School parents, followed by their feeder primaries but notably less (but still a majority) of support at Blackbourne in Stanton.

So unless we are only talking about current Ixworth Middle School parents the support is nothing like Hancock's figures - and this was when the free school was ostensibly led by a parent group and assumed free transport to either Ixworth or Thurston.

Suffolk County Council, Department of Education, and indeed the Thurston Partnership also have set out that they welcome the choice a free school would offer to parents.

Suffolk County Council have a policy document on free schools and academies that support them in principal but the Administration does not appear to have taken a position on Ixworth. Whilst local County
Councillor Joanna Spicer is clearly a fan she herself seems frustrated at the lack of enthusiasm from her fellow Conservatives in the Administration.

The Thurston partnership proposal had the comments about a free school shoe-horned into it due to political interference from Hancock and Spicer as this blog revealed. 

Of course it is also important that the right transport is available. Suffolk County Council has a statutory duty to treat free schools in exactly the same way as any other school. Further, they are keen to ensure that there is as much choice available. Their consultation on the future of transport explicitly makes clear each area of Suffolk should be treated according to local circumstances, and that one option is that parents are given their choice of transport to either school in a catchment area. Further, a secondary school at Ixworth would shorten the average journey for pupils and so should save cost. So I am confident that concerns over transport can be worked out in a way that ensures the very best options for schools in and around Ixworth, so that we can ensure the very best education for local children.

I don’t think Hancock undertands the transport issue fully, he seems to think it will just go away. It won’t. As one parent said at the consultation "It’s all to do with transport, you don’t seem to understand"

The SCC consultation makes it clear that local plans must fit a general set of principals. Indeed they would be unfair if they did not. Matthew Hancock appears to suggest that somehow a situation will be engineered giving parents free transport in Thurtston area to a choice of schools but not elsewhere in Suffolk.

So I would have to pay for my choice but not a parent in Ixworth.

The consultation document talks of a single transport area in these terms:
Consider creating a shared transport priority area, so that children are transported to more than one school within the area, where:
  • schools are ‘close together’ (less than two miles); 
  • a significant community is split by the creation of a new transport priority area;
  • the transport network provides cost-effective solution; or 
  • there are insufficient places in the local schools to meet the likely demand;
I don’t see how this applies to Thurston. Schools are over two miles away and it looks unlikely that the transport network can provide a cost effective solution - certainly unless the Free School changed its hours so the same buses could be used to both places as it is now to the Middles and to Thurston. At the consultation meeting the extended school day was sold as a key part of the proposal.

If you support having options for your children’s school, then I would urge you to make your voice heard at public meetings on the 15th of May at Blackbourne Middle School and the 16th May at Ixworth Middle School, or contact the parent-led free school group here.

Presumably if you do not support this - or would rather some other choice than Seckford - then Hancock would rather you did not make your voice heard!!

It is notable that there is no link to the “parent-led free school group” as the bid is now, as Hancock is well aware, led by the Woodbridge based Seckford Foundation. The leaflet circulated at the meetings makes it clear they are the contact for any questions and the “parent” group played no part whatsoever in the meetings - actually I think one of them was entrusted to hold a microphone at Ixworth....


I hate seeing party politics interfering with eduction like this. It re-enforces my view that politicians should not be allowed near schools! They make things worse not better.
Seckford Foundation 7444966494045036230

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