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.