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.