Friday, 3 April 2015

West Basildon New Secondary School FAQ

The process of making an application for a new secondary mainstream school in West Basildon is underway and we are now building the team needed to form the vision and plan for the school. To show the Secretary of State that we know what we are doing we need people with specific skills who are keen to make progress quickly. The experience we are looking for includes education, finance, budgeting, human resource, governance, marketing and project management. If you think you may be able to contribute please fill in our survey and indicate that you can help out. You will be invited to one of our group meetings. 

We also need more parents from the area to complete the survey so that we can understand the needs we have to accommodate. One clear early indication from the responses so far is that by far the most popular specialty for the school is Mathematics and Computing.

Some people have questions and misunderstandings about what a free school is and how it would benefit the community. To answer these points we have put together this collection of answers to Frequently Asked Questions. If you need more information please ask in the comments section here or join our facebook group.

Why does West Basildon need a new secondary school?

Each year children from primary schools in Langdon Hills and West Laindon get places at as many as twenty different schools in other towns such as Brentwood, Billericay, Wickford, Upminster. They have to get there and back on long bus journeys which they have to pay for.  It harms their education and their social lives because they cannot easily stay for after school activities and at home they are separated from the friends they make at school.

Why wont Essex Council build a secondary school?

When the new estates in Langdon Hills were being built in the 1990s it was planned that there would be a secondary school for the area but they sold the last piece of land to Tescos. They intended that the children of Langdon Hills would use James Hornsby School instead, but James Hornsby has always had low levels of attainment, so those who can afford the bus prefer to go elsewhere.

But Wouldn’t James Hornsby improve if children from Langdon Hills went there?

There are easily enough children from the primary schools nearer to James Hornsby to fill it so the council will need to improve the results of those primary schools first if they want to improve James Hornsby. When it does improve it will be oversubscribed and the children of Langdon Hills will be too far away to get in.

Wont the council build a new school once James Hornsby is full?

Essex County Council predicts that James Hornsby will be full by 2018. Some people say it is full already.  However, when planning for schools in the Basildon Borough the council looks at the number of spare places separately in towns like Basildon, Billericay and Wickford. They ignore the fact that people from Basildon go to schools outside Basildon due to a lack of good schools nearer home. They find that Billericay and Wickford schools are full while there are still about 1500 free places in Basildon. They also ignore the fact that these free places are at the Basildon Academies which are further from Langdon Hills than the distances between the three towns. Because of this faulty logic they will not build a new school in West Basildon.

Basildon Council are planning to build 16,000 new homes. Wont that force them to build new secondary schools?

In the draft Local Plan for Basildon the council proposed to build a new secondary school near Wickford for a development of 2000 new homes in a North-East extension of Basildon because they regard the schools in Wickford as full. However, for the 2300 homes they plan to build to the West of Basildon they did not propose any new school because there is a surplus of schools in East Basildon and in North Brentwood. You only have to look at the distances between these places on a map to realise how ridiculous this logic is but their logic is unlikely to change.

If the Dunton Garden Suburb of up to 6000 homes is built wont that force the councils to build a new secondary school?

At this stage it is not known whether the councils will want to new secondary school for DGS (if the plans are taken further) while there is a surplus in Basildon and Brentwood.  ECC have said that one will be needed but that does not mean it will be built. If a secondary school for DGS is built it is likely to be placed in the South West of the development so as to be furthest from the spare places elsewhere. It would only cater for the families of DGS and not those of Langdon Hills and Laindon who would still be expected to fill spare places at the academies in East Basildon. Finally we must remember that even if DGS goes ahead it will not start to be built until at least 2022, and we hope it will not be built at all.

How would a free school help?

The government encourages groups of parents and teachers to make plans for new schools in their area and apply directly to the Department of Education bypassing the Local Authority. If we can gather the evidence of the need and demand for a school and show that it will be a success then it will be approved as a free school outside the control of ECC.

What is the difference between free schools and faith schools?

Faith schools are religious schools. Free schools can be faith schools but despite the governments encouragement for faith schools most free schools are secular. Free schools can also be any type of special school and can try out experimental teaching methods, but most are just ordinary schools. 

What kind of school will it be?

It will be a mainstream secondary school with a sixth form like any other typical secondary school in the area.

Why does it need a sixth form?

The only sixth form currently in Basildon is the Upper Basildon Academy which is over three miles away by road and its 6th form numbers are falling. Other schools with sixth forms in surrounding towns are even further. It is very unusual to find an urban area like West Basildon that does not have a sixth from much nearer than that especially since now students must continue in some form of full time education until they are 18. The South Essex College now have plans approved to move to Basildon centre and that will provide high quality 6th form education, but it is not enough on its own.

What will it be called?

That is not yet decided and could depend on factors such as location and speciality. For now we are just calling it the Free School for West Basildon.

How big will it be?

It will need to have places for about 1300 pupils to fill the gap for the three primary schools

Will it have all new buildings?

The Department for Education prefers free schools to use existing buildings that are refurbished for the purpose of the new school, but there is nothing suitable of the right size in the area so it is likely to be a new build school.

Who is the free school for?

Free schools must be open to all applicants and cannot be selective. However priority admission will be set to favour the children of Great Berry, Lincewood and Merrylands primary schools, either by making them the priority feeder schools or by using their combined priority admission areas.

Who will run the school?

Once free schools are formed they become academies which means they are run by a board of governors. It will answer directly to the government Department for Education rather than the Local Authority. They will therefore by run in the same way as any other academy in the area.

Do you mean it will be like the Basildon Academies?

A lot of other schools in the area have converted to academies including The Billericay School, Mayflower High School, The Anglo European School, St Martin’s School, Shenfield High School, The Bromfords School, Gable Hall, St Clere’s, Hall Mead etc. In January 2015 ECC revealed that 109 out of 450 of their schools in Essex had converted to academies.

Who will fund the school?

It would be wholly funded by the state directly through the Department for Education who give a fixed amount for each pupil plus other grants such as those needed to start up.

Will the academy run the school for profit?

No, the academies must run free schools as non-profit charitable trusts.

Would the school have a sponsor like a multi-academy chain?

Some groups of free schools and academies are run by academy chains who may provide additional sponsorship. However, we would prefer this school to have its own academy trust set up by local parents and teachers so that they have full control over how the school works.

Is there a risk that the government will privatise free schools and let companies make a profit from them?

Governments are unpredictable but if they do try such a thing all academies would be at risk

Will it have an unusual curriculum?

As an academy the school governors have more freedom to set the curriculum but like other academies in the area they will be expected to follow the common courses for GCSE and A-levels set by OCR, AQA and Edexcel. The exact details will be for the governors to decide in consultation with the teachers and parents.

Will the school have a speciality subject?

Secondary schools can have two specialities chosen from a specific range of possibilities. There are some advantages of doing so (e.g. it attracts teachers that may otherwise be hard to get) but speciality status no longer gets extra funding and it is not necessary to meet special criteria. An initial survey of parents showed that about 50% would prefer the school to have the “Mathematics and Computing” speciality while the rest are divided. Sport was the second favourite but the nearby James Hornsby School is a sports college and is not oversubscribed. Although nothing has been decided it is therefore likely that the school will attempt to establish itself as a Maths and Computing specialist.

Some free schools have been in the news because they have failed. Are free schools really a good thing?

The news media always focus on the bad news. The first free schools that opened in 2011 and 2012 have now had their first Ofsted reports and the achievement results for the 25 mainstream secondary schools are  24% outstanding, 44% good, 24% Satisfactory and 8% Inadequate. That compares very well with the results for all schools which are 8% outstanding, 35% good, 50% Satisfactory, 7% Inadequate. Out of the 255 free schools that have opened so far only a few have closed. One was the Discovery New School primary in Crawley which closed in 2013 and another is the Durham Christian Free School secondary which is closing this year after it was found to be teaching creationism.

But I read a very negative report about free schools...? 

Free schools have been a political fighting ground with Conservative and UKIP strongly in support while Labour, Lib/Dem and Greens have been against. Anything you read in the press is likely to be a heavily one sided article driven by the political agenda of the reporter. The best thing you can do is forget the politics and look yourself at the facts and statistics then consider whether a free school in West Basildon is the right thing to build.

How can we be sure that this school will be successful when other Basildon schools have failed?

The success of a school depends on many things including getting the right teachers and governors, but the strongest indicator of success is the attainment levels of the primary schools that feed into it. Great Berry, Lincewood and Merrylands primary schools have very good results. They are much better than most of the other primary schools with a few exceptions such as Lee Chapel Primary. If the pupils from these three primary schools form most of the intake into the new school there is no reason why it would not be as successful as schools in Billericay and Brentwood.

How can you be sure it will not be made to take children from other primary schools, especially if more houses are built around Dunton?

The school must accept applications from all families but it can set its admission criteria so that pupils from the three preferred primary schools or from their catchment areas have priority. The intake would then be sufficient to fill a school of 1300 pupils so provided it is not made bigger it will not take many children from elsewhere.

Are there any other similar free schools in Essex that it can be compared with?

Becket Keys CoE school opened in Brentwood in 2012. It has been marked outstanding by Ofsted and is heavily oversubscribed. The Ongar Academy to the North of Brentwood has been approved to open in 2015 and is similar to what we are aiming at for West Basildon, except that it is in a more rural area. Other free schools opening this year include the Oasis Academy in Romford and the Harris Secondary in Chafford Hundred which is joining the Harris primary free school to form a “superschool”.

Where would the school be?

That would be a problem for the Department of Education to consider once the school is improved but it would have to be accessible to its catchment area. The most likely locations are therefore around Dunton.

Won’t it mean building on the green belt and isn’t that a problem?

It is not certain that the school would have to be built on green belt. A suitable brownfield site might come free at a suitable time. However, it is likely that only green belt sites would be suitable. That is not necessarily a problem because building on the green belt is acceptable in “very exceptional circumstances” and the benefit of a school could meet that requirement provided the harm to the green belt is not too great. A secondary school typically requires building on 2 to 3 hectares with a further 3 to 5 hectares left open as playing fields. Building a school is very different from building a large housing development, and not just in terms of size. Unmet housing need is not regarded as sufficient to justify building on green belt.  For the school to be acceptable on green belt there would have to be sufficient support from nearby residents.

When will the school open?

It is hard to say as it depends on how quickly things can be agreed and whether temporary accommodation can be used while building is in progress. Perhaps 2018.

Will the school be detrimental to other schools nearby?

Some people fear that free schools can make matters worse for failing schools nearby because they draw away their best pupils. In fact studies have shown that the opposite is the case. Free schools raise the standards of schools nearby, especially those that are not doing well. In the case of the free school for West Basildon the target population will be children who would otherwise go to oversubscribed schools further away. This is the case for most children from the three feeder primaries. The oversubscribed schools in Billericay will benefit from the reduction of admissions from Basildon. If you still think a new free school could be detrimental to other schools in Basildon have a look at the standards they have achieved over the last 15 years and then ask yourself, could it really get worse?

Will the school cause traffic problems in the area?

A large school is bound to generate traffic on nearby roads. However, the rationale for the school is that to will be much more local for the children of West Basdilon who currently have to travel by bus and car to towns up to 10 miles away and beyond. There should be an overall reduction of traffic on the roads in the region. Some children will even be able to walk to school. We have all seen how much quieter the roads are when the schools are out so it is not hard to see that the overall effect on traffic should be positive.

What other benefits could the school bring to the area for people who are not at the school?

A good secondary school in the area will make families want to live here. This will encourage more businesses that employ people to come to the area increasing employment for all. House prices may rise at a result of the school and its knock-on effects.

Would the free school use unqualified teachers?

Academies are allowed to employ unqualified teachers but the practice is controversial and there have been calls to change the rules. In fact it is not just unqualified teachers that can be a danger. Too many inexperienced teachers can also lead to problems. Our expectation is that the new school will be able to attract good teachers. The school governors should therefore be looking to recruit an appropriate mixture of experience to ensure a successful teaching program. In some rare circumstances an unqualified teacher could be a good choice, e.g. a sports coach. This would be left to the judgement of the governors of the school.

Isn’t it going to be hard for a group of inexperienced parents and to set up a secondary school properly?

Making a successful application will require a team of people with demonstrable experience and qualifications in a range of essential skills from working in schools and elsewhere. If they cannot be found the application will be rejected. Furthermore they will seek advice from the New Schools Network, a body set up to provide help and information to groups wishing to create a free school. This will ensure that everything is being done properly.

Will the School have a uniform?

It is traditional in English schools to have a uniform up to the age of 16 (unlike the US and the rest of Europe) Some schools have distinctive custom uniforms while others go for simpler standard dress that can be bought much more cheaply. For the free school this would be decided in consultation with parents.

If we support the school, will we be sure to get in?

We will aim to ensure that everyone from the three feeder schools who wants a place at the school will be able to obtain it. At the Becket Keys CoE Free School there was controversy because some people who supported it could not get in. In order to avoid the same mistake we must make sure that everyone who will want a place supports the school by filling in our questionnaire to say that they will make the school their first choice at an early stage. This will ensure that we can justify the required capacity. 

What will be the effect of the result of the general election?

The Conservatives have promised 500 new free schools if elected. The Labour Manifesto says "We will end the wasteful and poorly performing Free Schools programme" and they have announced nothing similar to replace it.

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