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.  

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