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 http://goo.gl/gjqtu) 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.”