Sunday, 19 February 2012

Mind the gaps!

To all regular readers of the Gemstones’ blog, who may have thought we had given up on our vision for a Special School, apologies for the gap in transmission.   I can reassure you that we remain undaunted by the rejection of our Free School proposal and quite determined to find a way of meeting the gap in provision for children with social, communication, emotional and behavioural difficulties.  (Yes as you can see a theme is emerging here and one famously associated with the London Tube system.)

The Gemstones team has been hard at work developing our ideas for an outreach service to schools and families.  We decided that we would start by offering this part of the service as it does not require the same level of investment, particularly in buildings, as setting up the school provision we have planned.  Glenn from Rainbow Creative has designed us a logo and a website is under construction.  We are planning to consult a group of schools about the proposals for service and if response is encouraging then aim to pilot service with a group of schools.  Meanwhile we will be applying for grants to help support the work with families in need of specialist services for their children.

We have continued to meet with Suffolk local authority.  Officers remain reticent to provide the statement of support required by the Department of Education due to the impact that they say it would have on their funding of existing special school places.   Whilst we do not have this written statement of support we will not submit another Special Free School proposal as it is an essential pre-requisite of any special school proposal and was a major factor in our

We also spent time involved in meetings with a Suffolk Academy.   The plan here was to work jointly to establish a Special School on their site.  We shared our detailed proposal and discussed possibilities of working together to establish either a Special Free School or an Independent Special School within their site.  In January we heard that they were submitting their own Special Free School proposal, which was a huge disappointment after what had seemed such a promising start to our negotiations.

Our plan now is to continue looking for suitable buildings for a school in the Ipswich area and to identify private investment funding to get us up and running.  So if there is anyone who can help with a gap in our set up costs then please get in touch.  We are waiting to hear from you.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Feedback is the Breakfast of Champions..........

I have always taken the attitude that feedback offered to help improve performance is without a doubt an excellent personal development or CPD opportunity.  I often quote from a story told about an interview with Boris Bekker the tennis player and champion who is pressed by the interviewer for the secret of his success.  He says in the interview that talent is not enough by itself that it takes discipline and finally humility to listen to coaches and to take advice, and sums up this sentiment with the statement “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”  It was with this attitude that myself and another member of the Gemstones team took up the offer of feedback from the DfE regarding our Special Free School proposal.

The call took place at the appointed time with the DfE case-worker and the person who had chaired the interview panel.  I had suggested we use Skype, but was told it would have to be a telephone call.  We were first told that the decision was final and then asked if we intended to apply in the next round.  I was a bit taken aback at this question as I couldn’t see why that was relevant, although the chair insisted that it would be helpful for them to know this first.  I said something positive whilst not wholly committing ourselves to applying again.  We were told that we had demonstrated “passion and commitment” and then asked if we would comment on the feedback provided in the letter particularly, “anything we did not agree with.”  I was not prepared to do this and so we remained silent. 

We were then prompted several times and told that it would be helpful to them for us to comment and give feedback as there was a lack of body language feedback to be gleaned over the phone and it was making it difficult for them.  When I eventually made a comment about the experience of the group, the chair responded that it was good that they had, “needled” us into a response.   At this point my colleague and I were both shocked at such a strange and yet revealing choice of words.

We were provided with a long list of details we had got wrong, the chief complaint of which was our choice of putting BESD and ASD groups of pupils together.  We were told that the panel could not understand this selection, viewed it as inappropriate for both groups and this meant that they could not understand the provision proposed.  It was this that was central to their view that our proposal lacked focus and coherence.

At interview I had outlined that the provision was for pupils with social, communication, emotional and behavioural difficulties who did not have significant learning disabilities that would be catered for by SLD or PMLD provision.  I gave three clear, practical examples from accepted good practice with these groups taken from our educational plan section these included, nurture group curriculum, clear rules boundaries and routines that would be consistently maintained and use of a visual timetable. This had obviously not been convincing for the panel.

The chair spoke about this and went to say that an example of our lack of focus and coherence in the proposal was given in an answer I had provided at interview in which I said it would be possible in our school for a pupil to be working at a level 6 and another to be on p levels.  This was quoted to us with an air of complete incredulity as an example of a range of ability for which it would be completely impossible for us to cater and therefore perfectly illustrative of their points about a lack of focus.  The chair then went on to say that the panel had concluded that parents therefore would not understand our provision and neither would the local authority.  Given that many of our fantastically gifted mainstream colleagues manage such a range as I have quoted in larger classes than we were proposing, that we had managed to get more parents wanting to register their children with us than we needed and that the local authority had told the DFE that they viewed our proposal as ‘very robust’, I question whether they are confusing opinion with fact.

It had been made clear to us from the outset of the feedback session that it was already game set and match and yet I had attempted to listen and learn from a ‘coach’, despite being prompted and finally ‘needled’ into commenting.  This process was not, for us, either constructive or developmental.   Even the first statement designed to be the sweetener about commitment and passion seemed rather lame and indeed patronising for a group that had managed to get all the way to the interview stage.  I am left wondering if the purpose was to put us off applying again simply because the proposal was challenging of their accepted wisdom, too innovative or more particularly, “too ambitious” as their letter had so intriguingly stated.  Suffice is to say that I won’t be adopting this approach as a coaching model as we found it wholly indigestible as a learning process.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Gemstones Forges Productive Partnerships and Possibilities Increase


Far from feeling daunted or frustrated by the DfE’s rejection of our proposal the fantastic Gemstones team and its many supporters remain optimistic and now really excited by the many possibilities opening up to us.  Sometimes when a door closes it really makes one check all the other doors and windows in the room that may otherwise have remained unexplored.  The door to a renewed Free Special School proposal remains ajar in fact but it is not the only opportunity open to our vision for children and families in Suffolk and beyond.  We feel it is an exciting time and our creative thinking skills are now working at a deeper level than they were a year ago and our motivation is gathering momentum.

I have always believed that partnerships and co-operation with others usually creates opportunities and is a preferred modus operandi than a mean spirited fear of competition.   Paces, one of the other groups that has been successful in getting to the next stage, have been one and a very helpful conversation helped me to review our position in a new and enabling light. Encouragement has also come from another special school proposer and an AP proposer that were also unsuccessful, so I feel that the Special Free School process has provided a productive and enriching network.
The partnership with the LA continues on a very positive note.   Several of our team met with the LA again recently and discovered that the DfE had spoken to them prior to our interview.  We were told that the LA expressed support for our proposal and viewed it as ‘very robust’.  The issue that emerged was to do with the requirement to commit to the significant funding contribution required at a time of reducing LA budgets.  We were hugely encouraged to learn that they remain in need of school places for children in exactly the kind of school set out in our proposal and remain confident of the quality or our provision and our track record.  Discussion also revolved around the current cost of places and alternatives to Free School provision including the independent school option.

Other partnerships forged recently include those with some local Academies and Academy sponsors.  One of these was already exploring the possibility of setting up a Free Special School and another of which may have some building availability in the near future.   What has so encouraged me has been the very positive and immediate response I received from a very speculative series of emails.   It is clearly too early to say whether or not we will be able to establish either a Special Free School or an Independent one with their assistance, but it is a good place to start. 

The wonderful Gemstones team has also started to look again at the outreach provision that formed part of our proposal.  Our consultation with local schools prompted expressions of interest for buying in this service. This could be more easily established without the need for huge set up costs in the form of buildings.  Fortunately one of the Gemstones members has already established a similar service for a different client group and this experience is proving very helpful to the development of our future plans for outreach services in a number of key respects. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Onwards and Upwards......

In the time that has elapsed since my last blog we received the disappointing news that our proposal is not going forward to the next round.  This is despite the fact that the New Schools Network had picked ours out as a proposal with high potential, so much so that we were asked if they could use it as a case study exemplar.   Also reading my last blog I realise it was quite prophetic as I used it as a platform to voice my views about the questioning we had received during the interview regarding our mix of BESD and ASD plus specific learning difficulties or dyslexia.  In the end the key reason provided for our proposal being rejected was that they felt that the vision relating to the mix of ASD and BESD was not coherent.

What is interesting is that mainstream schools are frequently expected to cater for pupils with Statements for these types of SEN and more within one classroom and the guidance for the application form stressed that we must be able to adequately cater for a whole range of SEN.  Furthermore, as I mentioned during our discussion with DfE officials I know that any numbers of Pupil Referral Units have exactly this mix as did the one that I set up and ran successfully for 5 years.  The evidence of 2 outstanding OfSTED judgements for this provision was sadly not sufficient to sway their view that there was not enough evidence to support our proposal for this mix of pupil needs.  Other reasons given were that parents would not have understood the range of needs we were catering for (ie children with social, communication, emotional and behavioural needs) and that our offer appeared to be “too ambitious” for the size of school.  

We have not had any feedback from the New Schools Network, the local authority, local schools, and other related professionals or parents to suggest that the vision for providing for this range of needs was not understood.  In fact we had not even one response questioning this or the need for a school for this group of children.  We had more responses and commitments to our consultation than that demanded by the criteria for submission.  We accept the DfE judgement though as it is final and have requested the further feedback that was offered in the letter of rejection.  We will listen to any helpful feedback but also seek a range of options in our quest to make our vision for this group of children a reality.

The positives to come out of all this include those identified in the letter. “You and your colleagues clearly have a track record of working successfully in the sector and you also identified the areas where you needed to bring in further expertise. The determination to make a difference to the lives of young people in Suffolk and the passion that was central to your application also came across very strongly at interview.”   In addition we have been informed that the local authority were contacted by phone prior to our interview and expressed a view that our proposal was in their view, very robust and we therefore thank them for their vote of confidence.

Onwards and upwards therefore and now we are exploring other avenues including private finance and the independent school registration route.   Which brings to mind a quote from Robert Frost:
“I took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”  
Perhaps taking the obvious route available at present, which is the Free School policy option, is not the best one for our vision for the provision we know is very much needed.  We can reapply for the next round though and we will not rule that out either.  Best to keep all options and routes open in this fast changing policy area.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Special Free School Proposals: Some Reflections and continuing Frustrations

During the last couple of weeks Gemstones has continued to lobby local politicians and local government officers for the illusive LA statement of support, which was an essential requirement of any Special Free School proposal.  It has been eventful (and not in the way I would have desired) and typically frustrating.  At one point we thought we had struck gold with a local politician, only to find that the wheels of the internal bureaucratic machinery prove difficult to align with the other great government bureaucratic machine that is the DfE.

We finally received a definite ‘no’ from the local authority regarding a supporting statement.  The reason given is quoted in full as follows: A key issue in reaching our decision is the uncertainty about the funding arrangements for special free schools. Following communication with the DfE it was clear that there are financial implications for the LA. Following our discussions with the DFE regarding Free School funding, it is our understanding that Free schools are effectively academies and are funded by recoupment from the LA. Therefore a potential effect of agreeing places at your proposed free school would be the impact on resources in existing Suffolk special school provision. For this reason the LA feels unable to give you the commitment that you are seeking at this stage.”

Hereby, lies the conundrum that is the Special Free School policy framework, which has no doubt been hurriedly constructed and currently proves to be an imperfect fit with the original Conservative party Free School vision.  As a result we hope that DfE will consider issuing guidance or specific direction to clarify the funding arrangements and the role of LAs in the context of the particular special Free School requirements, before the next round of Free School applications.

One interesting event I attended on 5th September was a small focus group session, for special and alternative providers held by the New Schools Network.  Chatham House rules were evoked and specifically a 'no blogging or tweeting' warning issued about the content of the discussion.  I intend, of course, to honour that and feel I can say a few things without compromising confidentiality.  It was particularly helpful to meet three other proposers, (two special Free Schools and one AP) who had also reached the interview stage.  I think facilitation of this kind of networking would be a very helpful service for future proposal groups.

The session also brought to mind several issues about the Free School proposal process for me.  One is the issue about the LA statement of support mentioned above and the need for some policy and role clarification.  Another is the requirement about collecting sufficient parental demand and presenting this in a suitably sensitive way within the proposal document. It is clearly important and necessary to identify sufficient numbers of the relevant SEN pupil population, but the parental demand requirement is another aspect of the process that seems more obviously derived from the original Free School policy designed for a mainstream context, as it is clearly much more difficult to reach families where no central or obvious community locality exists and therefore requires a more complex and demanding communications strategy.

Finally, the issue of the blend of types of SEN that we are proposing to admit to our school, which emerged as a key line of questioning at the interview, is something else that I would ask to be reviewed by the DfE.  The Free School policy and guidance to proposers specifically states one aim is to promote innovation.  We believe that part of the innovation of our Special Free School is that mix of special needs which in our proposal is described as social communication, emotional and behavioural difficulties.  The categories we selected from the pre-populated list on the Special Free School form were SEBD, ASD and Dyslexia.

I would argue that the current categories or SEN are socially or medically constructed and do not of course adequately capture the SEN of many children.   These categories are more an administrative device than a useful one for education practitioners. The Gemstones team have found through our work in schools that, for example, the label of Social Behavioural and Emotional Difficulites (SBED), often hides underlying learning needs particularly in basic skills.   This is definitely the case in Pupil Referral Units up and down the country where there are many children or students with previously unrecognised dyslexia or other related specific learning difficulties.  It can be a matter of chance which special need becomes the primary one mentioned in the statement. 

Talking to families and other colleagues I also know that a medical diagnosis such as ASD can be applied with varying rates across localities and their populations depending sometimes on a particular medical practitioner making the diagnosis and that once applied this can hide other underlying SEN.  I would therefore like to make a plea for us to stop allocating school provision on the basis of medical diagnoses and other socially constructed categories that current accepted orthodoxies believe fit suitably together in the classroom, or definitely don’t go together and instead look at what effective learning and teaching environments and techniques can achieve for pupils with a range of ‘educational’ needs.  Indeed, working with pupils for whom English is a second language and pupils with a wide range of SEN both in special schools and in mainstream, I have always found that wherever good and outstanding practice is found in schools it provides demonstrable benefits and learning outcomes for all pupils.  

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Gemstones' Mission to gain Political Support for our Special Free School

Since Gemstones attended a Free School proposers interview at the Department for Education on 17th August, I have focused on trying to obtain the sufficiently detailed Local Authority Statement that seemed to be a particular sticking point at interview. As a result I have been on a mission trying to gain political support for our proposal.  We have contacted local council politicians such as conservative Leader Mark Bee, Protfolio Holder for Children and Young People, Graham Newman and have also written to local MPs Ben Gummer and Therese Coffey.  I am hopeful that we will obtain this important piece of the jigsaw in time to make a difference to the decision making for the next stage.

An article in the Times Educational Supplement (TES last week made me feel that we can really congratulate ourselves in getting through to this round, especially without a sufficiently detailed and clear written endorsement from the LA.  The school in the article has the support of the Local Authority, it is an existing school with apparently a good track record with OfSTED and has received accolades from a number of high profile politicians from the previous and current governments and it did not get through on this occasion. The Free School process for Special Schools contains additional demands that do not apply to mainstream proposals and in addition, as a spokesperson for the Department said in the TES article: " This is a competitive process and we set out clear criteria which applicants have to address within the set deadlines.” Hence the reason we spent huge amounts of time scrupulously matching our proposal so closely to the 117 page handbook of guidance in what seemed to be the impossibly short time-scale.

Next week(Monday 5th September) we have been invited to a small focus group of 6 other Special and Alternative Provider proposers being organised by the New Schools Network. The invitation says: “We would like to know what services or help you think you will require from us in pre-opening stage, should your application be taken forward by the DfE. We would really appreciate your feedback on what we are currently planning to do, and how this could be improved……..This will enable us to tailor our services so that we can be of most use to you.”

Monday, 22 August 2011

Another Milestone in the Journey Towards Opening a Special Free School

17th August was the date set for our interview at the Department for Education. The sun shone to order that day and early indications suggested that the sun had already been shining on our proposal. As one of only 40 groups out of a total of 244 Free School Proposals submitted in June to get through to this important next stage, this is an achievement of which we are duly proud.

A small party of four colleagues from Gemstones Education Limited headed towards Westminster: Sanctuary Buildings to be precise.  The group consisted of the Chair of our Board of Trustees, the Chair of Governors, and the Finance Director and myself – Principal in waiting, or Principal Designate as the DfE would have it.  Amongst the interview panel of eight officials, there were two members who were former colleagues of mine (and in the small world of education it is perhaps no surprise that this should happen).

We were asked to give a short presentation, providing a summary of our inspiration, ambition, capacity and capability and our roles in drafting the proposal and setting up the proposed school.  The interview was set to last for 90 minutes and it fell only 3 minutes short of this.  The main lines of questioning included, the types of special educational need our school was set to cater for, how we would meet their needs, the curriculum provision, our track record in providing this, the rationale for the number of proposed places and cost implications, plus a couple of particulars about the budget.  As a process we feel the interview was both fair and thorough.

The main sticking point though, and one that questioning returned to probe in more depth, was the requirement that we had a statement of support from our local authority.   The issue here is a political and not a professional one.   Suffolk having had apparently 7 other potential Special Free School Proposers has decided that it will not provide a statement for any of them.  The reason stated is apparently to avoid accusations of favouritism.  We were told at interview that other local authorities had provided such a statement and I understand that another proposal received active support from their LA including the sending of a representative to the interview.  

Considering the stated intention that this government policy would herald a new and exciting era where  Free schools and academies would be ‘free’ of local authority control and interference, this is an interesting deviation from the stated intention in the case of the Special Free School model.  It is a shame therefore that this appeared to be the only dark cloud on the horizon for our Gemstones proposal.