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.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Another Lap Completed, a Few More Hurdles to go.

Our group, Gemstones, has this week been informed that we are through to the next round of the Special Free School bidding process. Yipee!  It has felt already like a marathon at times and we still have some way to go, so no time to dawdle or indulge in premature celebrations. We are hugely encouraged though and committed to providing a compelling and cogent case for our school as part of the next stage of the process.     
As I have come to expect from the Free School proposal process, there was considerable detail provided in the invitation to interview about what was expected of us and what we would need to demonstrate during the interview process. It has even been suggested that we prepare as a team with mock interviews!  I am expected to provide the names of the members of our team (4 is the suggested number and no more than 6 allowed) by noon on Friday 29th July.  Considering the email invitation only appeared during Monday afternoon, the turn around is clearly tight, especially with it being in the holiday season, making contact with some of our members problematic. 
We have also had another positive meeting with the local authority. It was great to be able to share with them the news about our interview at the Department. The meeting was our fourth in the last six months and close communication has paid off.  These meetings have been very positive and encouraging, so confidence and trust in the relationship is building.  This is indeed fortunate as partnership working is essential for the success of any Special Free School proposal as unlike the situation for mainstream schools the LA will be the admissions authority. I note also with interest that because of this difference in the mainstream and special Free School processes there will be LA representation on the interview panel.
We are hoping therefore that the local authority will be with us at the finishing line and part of the medal presentation ceremony with the real prizes going to the children and their families.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Special Free School Paperwork Submitted, Now Back to Building Relationships

Having now had 3 weeks without the frantic activity associated with the writing of the proposal (which was of course in addition to the day job), I have now had the luxury of some time for reflection.   It has allowed me to identify what it is that I really love about working on important new projects and working on this one in particular.  For me it is definitely building and in some cases renewing of relationships with like-minded people.  I am reminded of a quote from the inspirational Margaret Mead who said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

What gave me the motivation to keep working on the proposal, when I had my doubts about whether or not we would be able to meet the requirements and especially the deadlines, was the encouragement I received from parents, team members, former colleagues, teachers, headteachers and many others.  Without their support, I would not have been able to continue to hold the vision clearly in my mind and find the resources from within myself and from within our talented team, to adequately express that vision in a compelling way within our proposal.

I am now continuing with the consultation and find that I derive enormous satisfaction and inspiration from the responses that I receive.  Paper work and meticulous planning is, I know essential, but must not detract from, nor get in the way of, building strong and productive relationships with key partners and stakeholders.

This small yet growing group of thoughtful and committed people helps to keep me motivated and aware of the many possibilities of positive change that we believe this Special Free School will bring to children and their families.  It also serves as a useful distraction whilst we are waiting to hear about whether our proposal has made it through into the next round. 

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Some Little Gems from the Special Free School Proposal Process

I am pleased to announce that I handed in Gemstones’ proposal for a Special Free School to the Department on Tuesday afternoon, 24 hours before the deadline of 15th June.  I decided that rather than trust the vagaries of the postal system I would prefer to make the trip myself.   Now having heard from a fellow Special Free Schooler that despite in their case, purchasing the guaranteed next day delivery service, one of their packages was still in the postal system more than two days later, I am mightily relieved that I acted as postman. 

In fact I was so relieved after handing in our proposal that I developed a migraine within 30 minutes of delivery time.  It took me two days to feel even halfway sane and out of pain. I have spent the weekend sleeping and mostly trying to relax and recover from the 18-hour days.  I imagine that the rest of the Gemstones team have enjoyed extra free time and a sharp reduction in demands by email and text asking for information or assistance of one sort or another.

The last few weeks have been hectic in the extreme.  On top of the day job I spent all other waking hours tied to the laptop typing furiously, making numerous revisions according to the feedback provided by the New Schools Network.  I continued to be amazed at the level of detail required. There were many examples but just a couple of examples will illustrate the point.
  •  “You should explain exactly how you are planning to recruit governors – for example, where exactly are you planning to advertise?”  We do have 3 governors, including a Chair signed up already and I had included a recruitment plan, which was obviously not specific enough in this instance.
  • A comment made about the behaviour policy we had included; “You need to give more detail about your rewards and sanctions ladder for both good and bad behaviour.”  Considering that in the first set of instructions provided in April, we were told we did not have to provide behaviour and attendance policies at this stage, I found this demand astonishing to say the least.
The real sticking point is still the LA statement, even though the LA have been supportive and have given an undertaking that the population exists for these types of SEN and that they would like to see this provision, this is not enough. “What you must do is show that the local authority would be prepared to name your Special Free School on children’s statements, in line with parental preferences.  If possible you should be able to say how many pupils the local authority would be happy to refer to you.”   I for one do not blame the local authority for declining to provide a carte blanche guarantee to place sufficient numbers of children in a school that at present, has no confirmed premises and is in all other respects effectively a virtual school. 

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Devil is in the Detail

On 16th May a handbook was published containing a host of new detailed guidelines for the writing of Free School Proposals – all 117 pages of it!  This caused a period of frantic activity due to the huge task of amending the proposal to take into account these numerous and varied new requirements. Coincidentally, this was the very day that the window for Special Free School proposals opened. Yet another example of final details about this policy produced very late in the day.  

There are a host of new demands not contained in the original instructions.  I will not bore readers with them all (although it is quite difficult to choose one to highlight).  The one that incensed me though was the one requiring quite detailed information about parents who have responded to the questionnaire the Department ask you to set up to collect signatures of support, or more particularly those who will want to register their children at the Free School. 

The handbook produced by the New Schools Network specifies that you need to provide postcodes of families, the age of pupils along with their special educational need The example they provide is a table with individual rows for each child so that the postcode, special educational need and age of child are listed together.  The guidance also warns that the Department may at a later date ask for the names of parents and their children, although it stresses not to put these names in the proposal. Oh, and furthermore warns about the need to register with the Information Commissioners’ Office If any electronic data is held (cost of £35.00).

The Gemstones team have paid great attention throughout the document to preserving the confidentiality of respondents as we feel strongly that it is really important for us as a team to demonstrate respect for the families who have such a lot to contend with anyway. When parents or carers have provided responses to questions and we have collated and presented this information, we have done so in a way that removes anything which may identify the child, including diagnoses of one form or another, names of children, schools or any feature which I feel would breach confidentiality.

So needless to say, we have not followed the table format example provided in the handbook. We have instead grouped the information required as best we can so that special needs, post codes and an age span of several years is provided rather than a specific age.   Where there are postcodes that may be shared with only one or two houses, (which is a particular feature in rural areas), we have left off the second part of the postcode, so only a wider geographic area can be identified.   If this by itself means that our proposal is not successful, then so be it.

Are we alone in thinking this is a step too far?

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Further Ups and Downs in the Writing of a Free School Proposal.

This week, when not working on the day job, I have been driving round the East Anglian Countryside collecting names for the paperwork to set up a Company Limited by Guarantee.  Due to the approaching deadline the decision has been made to pay extra and use the fast track system for registering the Company.  This involves of course a higher fee, which would have been unnecessary had the DfE provided the Articles of Association at a much earlier point.  Was this perhaps another part of the strategy to discourage Special Free School Proposers?

We worked on the finance plan this weekend.  Various members of the team came up trumps providing information to assist us whilst the Company Secretary and I began inserting the figures, conducting the benchmarking exercise and working out the cost per pupil place.  Whilst doing this we discovered, when reviewing information provided at the SEN and Alternative Free School Proposers Event, that we also need to consult with the LA about the cost of placements.  This requirement is not set out in the DfE guidance or criteria, so yet again a case of the goal posts being very mobile indeed.   This discovery meant another email had to be sent off to the LA with yet another request for assistance.  It is just as well the LA is being very supportive of the proposal.

We have been blessed with support from the community, LA, schools and it is this that keeps me going when frustration and the huge amount of work gets the better of me.   I do feel though, as if I am becoming somewhat of a stalker and what is worse a stalker of those very people who are providing invaluable assistance.  Not only have I been pursing, with relentless persistence, the Trustees to sign the paperwork but also Officers of the LA have been the recipients of numerous demands for information and co-operation with aspects of the proposal.  This kind of behaviour is not normally the most effective strategy for winning friends and influencing people, so I hope they do have not only resilience but also a great deal of patience. 

The major proverbial spanner in the works this week has been the news that the building we had identified as the best option for the school and which has been available for the last 6 months, is going up for auction on Friday, just before the person from Partnership for Schools is due to come out to conduct a survey of the property.  The race is on therefore, to find another building option just in case the property we identified as our preferred option on the proposal disappears under the hammer.  Anyone know of a suitable building in Ipswich?

Monday, 9 May 2011

Frustration with the Special Free Schools process worthy of a John Cleese moment

As a Free School proposer my experience in the past week has further compounded my feelings of utter frustration with the process. Waiting for the Articles of Association to appear from the Department for Education has prevented us for some time from registering as a company limited by Guarantee with Companies House (an essential requirement of the DfE).  On Thursday 5th May this document finally appeared and this is now only 11 days before the window for applications opens.  

I now need to collect signatures from all those who have agreed to become ‘members’ of the company and as these are all very busy people who live in geographically dispersed areas of East Anglia, co-ordinating this on top of the day job in London in the short time scale is something of a logistical nightmare.  Anxiety about reliance on postal deliveries only adds to the tension. 

The documents then need to be sent off to Companies House for registration, which again relies on post and a quick turn around from them.  I was reminded by someone from the New Schools Network that I have a full month before the final deadline of 15th June, but as the proposal documents need to be posted and arrive in good time before this date, time available is again in short supply.  There does seem to be an assumption that we don’t work, go on holiday or have any other life.  Oh and given that interviews are scheduled for 1st until 19th August I definitely won’t be having a holiday during August.

This is not the only frustration either.  On the subject of holidays I need a current passport for the proposal process and as luck would have it this is due to run out in July.   I am becoming really well known at the post office now, as this has alone required several trips to have documentation checked and sent off.  The passport will hopefully arrive before the end of May.

I then asked today about the specific requirements to do with the statement form Local Authorities about placing children in the school when it is opened. I was told that this ‘statement’ needs to specify the exact number of children they expect to place. This was enough of a shock but more was to follow.  I found out that to demonstrate the parental demand part I need:
    a) responses from parents amounting to 75%  of the total number of planned pupil places      (in this case 36),
   b) these responses need to be from parents who have children in the right year groups for opening in September 2012  and
  c) their children have a Statements of SEN for these types of need. 

On Saturday I had an evening off and went to watch John Cleese in his one man show.  Images shown of John Cleese as one or other of his comedy characters, such as Basil Fawlty, jumping up and down in frustration gave some comedic release for my feelings about this torturous process.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

SEN and AP Free Schoolers Event: "Carrot snatched away!"

 The week started, with what I hoped would be a motivating and inspiring event run by the New Schools Network in London for Special Educational Needs and Alternative Provision Free School Proposers.   The event was much smaller than the main Free School event that had been held in London several weeks before.  The select few assembled had expectations, that judging from the reactions observed and views expressed, were cruelly dashed. Things became lively early on.  In fact the first presenter Hassan Al-Damluji, head of Strategy for the New Schools Network, did not get halfway through his slides before the interruptions began.   The first was an interjection in response to the information that any proposals for SEN or AP Free Schools can admit only pupils with Statements.   As one delegate commented, “You dangled a carrot and now have snatched it away.”  The presenters gave up quickly on their slides after that and mostly tried valiantly to answer questions and deal with comments.

For some delegates, particularly those wanting to set up Alternative Provision Free Schools, the stumbling block was that to be successful this type of Free School proposals had to cater solely for pupils with Statements.   Some existing Independent Special schools also expressed dismay at this revelation.  There emerged a regional variation in policy about the issuing of Statements and for some delegates finding pupils with a Statement was going to be more difficult than finding the proverbial ‘needle in a haystack’.  There was a civil servant who spoke briefly about funding reviews as the Green Paper but essentially said nothing that the audience did not already know.   Brian Lamb, who was second on the agenda to speak, tried to deal with the Statement issue and told one delegate that if their local authority claimed their policy to avoid issuing Statements was based on his report they could quote him directly to the effect that this was most definitely not accurate. 

Another stumbling block, which created anger, was that the relevant local authorities have to support the proposal, provide key data and a statement that the LA would place children in the school.  I felt fortunate indeed that Suffolk LA have been very helpful.   Although I was disturbed to learn at one point that having sent off registration to Companies House to set up a Company Limited by guarantee, (as directed by the guidance to do so), there was a requirement for ‘members’ of the company to sign specially drafted memoranda and articles of association which had not yet been published.  Furthermore we were informed that these specially driafted articles of association were unlikely to appear for several weeks! 

Given that the clock is already ticking with regard to submission of proposals, I was going to have to find a way round changing the memoranda issue without delay. I was, therefore, frustrated to say the least. Fortunately Companies house was very helpful when I rang the next day and explained my problem and so a solution was in fact found. There was, however, one encouraging development this week, which was that the financial plan spread sheet that has to be completed as part of the submission, was finally published on Thursday.  So at least we now have most (if not all) information and documents necessary to submit a proposal.

I spent a large part of the rest of the week drafting sections of the proposal form, sending out initial drafts to a number of associates and attending various meetings to develop the content and format of our application.    Other tasks involved, a recruitment campaign to identify more Trustees plus research to develop my own understanding of their role, establishing communication and consulting with parents and colleagues from voluntary and statutory agencies about our proposals. The email received in the middle of the week from the New Schools Network attempting to reassure us that our success with this process was entirely within the realms of possibility sounded a little too emphatic. Could this be a case maybe of they “doth protest too much?”  At this point I’ m just trying to remember when I last felt this frustrated and also what I did with my ‘spare’ time before I embarked on this metaphorical hurdling event.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Another Week in the Life of a Free School Proposer

The long awaited form for Special Free School applications arrived by email last Friday afternoon.  This was 3 weeks after the mainstream version was made available and 8 days after the revised date promised by the Department for Education.  Unfortunately, it was still incomplete as it was minus the crucial financial planning form.  This meant that I had to rearrange a weekend meeting set with the School Business Manager, that was due to take place to develop the business case.   Weekends are sometimes the only option when very busy, but committed people who are juggling full time day jobs also take on the writing of a Free School proposal.  Oh well, I suppose at least we both got a Saturday to ourselves. 

Suddenly having a Saturday without a Free School agenda,  was though, a bit of a relief since the week had been frenetic, involving serious multi tasking and a huge amount of networking with parents and professionals alike. Activities involved setting up a Campaign website with no previous experience, establishing a company limited by guarantee contacting parents and parent groups, meeting with other like minded but also gifted educators, plus others with media and marketing experience, all of whom have most generously leant their expertise and given their time freely.  By the end of the week I had learned huge amounts and new skills in ICT, marketing and promotion for use on the Free School campaign trail.  This just leaves me wondering how I will again manage the juggling act of resuming full time work in London after the Easter Break, whilst keeping the proposal on track and to time scale.  It does though make me feel very thankful for school holidays!

Another DfE communication also arrived towards the end of last week which was an invitation to an event scheduled for next week for those of us intending to submit proposals for Special and Alternative forms of Free Schools.  I responded by return just in case over subscription is an issue again.  Thankfully my time is more flexible at the moment and I can make the most of such invitations.  I am still waiting to hear 5 days later if I have a place at the conference, but I live in hope and expectation.  This is a state of mind, which I am finding, is very useful for ensuring that a Free School proposal gets to the first round.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The London Openers' Conference: A lesson in how to set up your own Free School

On Saturday I set off on the train to London to attend the conference being run by the New Schools Network for groups such as ours intending to set up a Free School.  As warned by a series of emails the event was heavily oversubscribed and sure enough the large conference hall was indeed packed to the gunwales . 

Rachel Wolfe, Director of the New Schools Network promised us that although the requirements for submitting a proposal to open a Free School had become more demanding it was perfectly possible and we should not be daunted.   Speakers who have already got through the first (less demanding) round of applications were able to enlighten us to the ease with which they had managed to secure their place in the race to be one of the few Free Schools due to open in the coming months.  

Some of the audience expressed frustration that the process is now indeed more arduous and also struggled to grasp some of the detail of inter-related issues such as roles and responsibilities of school leaders, Governors and the Board of Trustees plus the mechanism for morphing a company limited by guarantee (the latter is now a prerequisite of the initial proposal),into Trust status.  Questions were asked about funding for both capital and revenue streams, admissions plus appointments of school leaders and whether a 'Principal Designate' can also be a Trustee.  The answer to the latter was yes!

I attended the SEND workshop in the afternoon provided by Brian Lamb.   This was more aimed at informing would be Free Schoolers of their statutory duties towards pupils who have special educational needs or disabilities.  I had hoped it would provide some enlightenment about policy regarding the establishment of Free Special Schools and was disappointed.  I did discover however,  that there will be another event for groups such as ourselves wishing to set up a Special form of Free School and that the New Schools Network still do not know when the Forms for Special Free Schools will be issued, even though publicity earlier in March promised they would be released on 17th March.  Still we wait in hope and expectation.

A number of other attendees and I agreed though that the lunch was excellent.