My scrutiny of free schools in Tower Hamlets

schoolLast night I chaired a ‘challenge session’ of the council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee (O&S) in order to scrutinise the allocation of sites for new free schools in Tower Hamlets.

O&S is the main member-led body that holds the executive decision makers of Tower Hamlets to account, and I act as scrutiny lead on Children’s Services.  The scrutiny process provides non-executive councillors like me an opportunity to examine services; to ask questions on how decisions are made; and to consider whether service improvements can be put in place. Scrutiny reviews and challenge sessions are one of the ways in which we undertake this function.

Free schools – state-funded schools that are run independently of local authorities – are a relatively recent addition to Tower Hamlets. Introduced nationally by the coalition government in 2010, they provide a way for groups of parents, teachers, charities, existing schools or other organisations to respond to a need for a new school in their community – whether for extra places, to raise standards or to offer choice.

While successive Tower Hamlets administrations have been opposed to the rolling out of free schools, in July 2015 the Department for Education stipulated that any new school opened since May 2015 would now be designated as a free school. As such, I thought it was timely for us to examine how well the council is responding to this direction as it plans how best to meet the needs of Tower Hamlets’ rapidly-expanding population.

Free schools can be established by two routes:

  1. The local authority can meet a need for places by setting up a new school via what is known as the free school presumption process, which sees free school providers bid for a site in the borough

or

  1. Schools can be opened via the central government programme where proposers apply directly to the Department for Education.

As such, while the free school process is meant to be largely independent of local authority control, in a crowded borough such as Tower Hamlets – where new schools sites tend to come up only as part of large planning applications – the Council effectively retains a large degree of control. In being able to define in some cases the design spec of new school buildings and the scope of any consultation for a school provider under the free school presumption process, the council is able to influence the outcome of that process.

This makes it important that we understand how the free school presumption process is operating in this borough.

Indeed from my experience as a councillor in Wapping (it has been near impossible to get information from the council on its plans for a new secondary school on the London Dock site, for example) and in hearing the views of parents in other parts of the borough, it is my concern that the presumption process is not transparent enough or including local residents sufficiently, many of whom want to have a greater say over the kinds of schools opening near to them. .

I know parents are increasingly anxious about their ability to access high quality academic and technical education places for their children, and they are fearful that an insufficient number of such places are currently on offer in our borough. Indeed all too many parents have been saying to us that if they cannot get a decent place for their child, they will need to move out of the borough.

My choice of scrutiny session, therefore, was dictated by a desire to ensure that we offer families the kinds of school places they seek, in great enough numbers to meet demand both now and in future. As we all know, our borough is growing at a rapid rate and we need to have confidence that a process is in place that takes into account the huge developments being planned in places such as the Isle of Dogs in particular and the changing demographic demand within the borough.

The challenge session was attended by Tim Coulson, regional schools commissioner, as well as parent representatives, planners and headteachers from Mulberry School, Cyril Jackson School, and Canary Wharf College. There was a lot of very lively discussion and the outcome of the challenge session will be a set of recommendations to council on how to improve the planning, consultation, tendering and design processes for schools on local authority sites.

I shall share the report once it has been completed.

Posted on by admin in Uncategorized

Add a Comment