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.