Monday, 31 October 2011

Gemstones Forges Productive Partnerships and Possibilities Increase


Far from feeling daunted or frustrated by the DfE’s rejection of our proposal the fantastic Gemstones team and its many supporters remain optimistic and now really excited by the many possibilities opening up to us.  Sometimes when a door closes it really makes one check all the other doors and windows in the room that may otherwise have remained unexplored.  The door to a renewed Free Special School proposal remains ajar in fact but it is not the only opportunity open to our vision for children and families in Suffolk and beyond.  We feel it is an exciting time and our creative thinking skills are now working at a deeper level than they were a year ago and our motivation is gathering momentum.

I have always believed that partnerships and co-operation with others usually creates opportunities and is a preferred modus operandi than a mean spirited fear of competition.   Paces, one of the other groups that has been successful in getting to the next stage, have been one and a very helpful conversation helped me to review our position in a new and enabling light. Encouragement has also come from another special school proposer and an AP proposer that were also unsuccessful, so I feel that the Special Free School process has provided a productive and enriching network.
The partnership with the LA continues on a very positive note.   Several of our team met with the LA again recently and discovered that the DfE had spoken to them prior to our interview.  We were told that the LA expressed support for our proposal and viewed it as ‘very robust’.  The issue that emerged was to do with the requirement to commit to the significant funding contribution required at a time of reducing LA budgets.  We were hugely encouraged to learn that they remain in need of school places for children in exactly the kind of school set out in our proposal and remain confident of the quality or our provision and our track record.  Discussion also revolved around the current cost of places and alternatives to Free School provision including the independent school option.

Other partnerships forged recently include those with some local Academies and Academy sponsors.  One of these was already exploring the possibility of setting up a Free Special School and another of which may have some building availability in the near future.   What has so encouraged me has been the very positive and immediate response I received from a very speculative series of emails.   It is clearly too early to say whether or not we will be able to establish either a Special Free School or an Independent one with their assistance, but it is a good place to start. 

The wonderful Gemstones team has also started to look again at the outreach provision that formed part of our proposal.  Our consultation with local schools prompted expressions of interest for buying in this service. This could be more easily established without the need for huge set up costs in the form of buildings.  Fortunately one of the Gemstones members has already established a similar service for a different client group and this experience is proving very helpful to the development of our future plans for outreach services in a number of key respects. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Onwards and Upwards......

In the time that has elapsed since my last blog we received the disappointing news that our proposal is not going forward to the next round.  This is despite the fact that the New Schools Network had picked ours out as a proposal with high potential, so much so that we were asked if they could use it as a case study exemplar.   Also reading my last blog I realise it was quite prophetic as I used it as a platform to voice my views about the questioning we had received during the interview regarding our mix of BESD and ASD plus specific learning difficulties or dyslexia.  In the end the key reason provided for our proposal being rejected was that they felt that the vision relating to the mix of ASD and BESD was not coherent.

What is interesting is that mainstream schools are frequently expected to cater for pupils with Statements for these types of SEN and more within one classroom and the guidance for the application form stressed that we must be able to adequately cater for a whole range of SEN.  Furthermore, as I mentioned during our discussion with DfE officials I know that any numbers of Pupil Referral Units have exactly this mix as did the one that I set up and ran successfully for 5 years.  The evidence of 2 outstanding OfSTED judgements for this provision was sadly not sufficient to sway their view that there was not enough evidence to support our proposal for this mix of pupil needs.  Other reasons given were that parents would not have understood the range of needs we were catering for (ie children with social, communication, emotional and behavioural needs) and that our offer appeared to be “too ambitious” for the size of school.  

We have not had any feedback from the New Schools Network, the local authority, local schools, and other related professionals or parents to suggest that the vision for providing for this range of needs was not understood.  In fact we had not even one response questioning this or the need for a school for this group of children.  We had more responses and commitments to our consultation than that demanded by the criteria for submission.  We accept the DfE judgement though as it is final and have requested the further feedback that was offered in the letter of rejection.  We will listen to any helpful feedback but also seek a range of options in our quest to make our vision for this group of children a reality.

The positives to come out of all this include those identified in the letter. “You and your colleagues clearly have a track record of working successfully in the sector and you also identified the areas where you needed to bring in further expertise. The determination to make a difference to the lives of young people in Suffolk and the passion that was central to your application also came across very strongly at interview.”   In addition we have been informed that the local authority were contacted by phone prior to our interview and expressed a view that our proposal was in their view, very robust and we therefore thank them for their vote of confidence.

Onwards and upwards therefore and now we are exploring other avenues including private finance and the independent school registration route.   Which brings to mind a quote from Robert Frost:
“I took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”  
Perhaps taking the obvious route available at present, which is the Free School policy option, is not the best one for our vision for the provision we know is very much needed.  We can reapply for the next round though and we will not rule that out either.  Best to keep all options and routes open in this fast changing policy area.