Monday, 1 August 2011

Michaela Free School debate continued: A non-meeting of minds... (Part 1)

A discussion meeting (organised by the Kennington Association for local residents) about the proposed Michaela Free School on the former Lilian Baylis site was held two weeks ago on 18th July.  Apologies that this write-up has been delayed, but it's well worth reading, if only for a couple of dramatic flare-ups in the meeting, on account of most participants arriving with firmly entrenched views.   [Part 2 of the writeup containing local resident questions and answers is here too.]

I was hoping that I'd be able to present a clear Lurking about SE11 opinion after the meeting, but that seems difficult on account of one or two rather major factual disagreements, as you'll see.  There were the pro-free school people who, (other than one lone parent) arrived to support team-hooray-Michaela.  Then there were the anti-free school people, made up of a loose and disparate band of local councillors and angry teachers or union people.  These shall be known as team-angry-people.  As usual, there was odd-ball ranting, and general off-topic rambling, but Anna Tapsell, who was chairing the meeting for Kennington Association, managed to ensure that everybody had a chance to speak.

Katharine Birbalsingh (KB) initially introduced two other members of the steering-group, Daisy Christodoulou (a teacher) and Ndubuisi Kejeh (a former Lambeth school student).  She then offered a brief summary of the plans.  The steering group, we learned, exists as a group of teachers, parents and ex-Lambeth school pupils who all are "deeply committed" to state-education.  What they like about free schools/academies is that power can be devolved down.  The steering group, we heard, want to give parents another choice of school in Lambeth.  KB also noted that the Michaela bid has been submitted to the government.  I'd advise you to visit the Michaela Free School site for more info. as this post is long enough already!  We learned briefly that the proposed school plan to offer the Baccalaureate (on account that it provides a broad foundational knowledge on which to build skills).  KB stressed that "traditional knowledge is important".  We also heard several times about the plan to implemented an extended school day, since this would provide an opportunity for additional subjects such as  Mandarin Chinese, media-awareness and literacy etc.  It was again stated that Kate Hoey had offered her support, and I also found that in print in the Evening Standard.

Next up, we heard from Ndubuisi Kejeh (a willing poster boy) who was taught at secondary school by KB.  At university, he studied electrical engineering, was the chair of his university's political philosophy society, set up an NGO and is now working to meet future energy needs sustainably.  He asked KB if he could be on the steering group and has acted as a mentor to children in primary and secondary school.  The parents of Kejeh's mentors claimed that State education faces the issue of narrowing options.

After that, Katharine Birbalsingh was given about half an hour to present the school proposal and to address potential criticism.  She was quite clear that the steering group's heart had been set on Lambeth because there is a "huge shortage of places", both at primary and secondary level in Lambeth.  This year, apparently 452, year 6 Lambeth children did not get a place at a Lambeth secondary school.  "That's not true" interjected Cllr Harrison, but his right of reply came later. The steering group and volunteers have handed out 20,000 leaflets at Brixton market and around Lambeth and have had another 20k printed.  Birbalsingh observed that free schools were set up on the basis of charter schools in the US to transform education in the inner-city.

Working on the rough figure of 450 children without places (which will be disputed), Birbalsingh suggested that the Michaela School would  only offer 120 places at Year 7, and suggested that there'd still be a shortage of some 300 places in Lambeth.  Additionally, she acknowledged peoples' views that the shortage is more severe in south Lambeth, but noted  there aren't any suitably-sized school sites in the south.  I was certainly impressed by the manner in which Birbalsingh stated her case...  "If the former Lilian Baylis site is sold to a developer for flats, it would be a great shame because the one opportunity that Lambeth has to establish a secondary school that is desperately needed, would be taken away.", she lamented.  And indeed, one might concur, especially if there is an enormous shortage of sites at present.

The only problem, according to KB, is that Lambeth Council  asked for bids on the former Lilian Baylis site to be submitted by 5th July, but the government, on behalf of the Michaela steering committee can't put a bid in until September, because they won't hear whether they have approval until then.  That seemed to me to be a rather major flaw in the Michaela Free School proposal, but then, it's not clear that the Council can sell off the site immediately either (which became clear later).

"Free Schools", Katharine Birbalsingh offered, "work as a gift to the community."  That's because the money to fund them comes from central government.  (Mind you, it's all tax at the end of the day...)  It was acknowledged, however, that if the proposed Michaela  Free School were to take children from local schools, those schools would lose out on account of receiving less money per head.  Note that point carefully.  It will matter later.  Much of the argument is predicated on the notion that there is a "huge surplus of children and a shortage of places", which means that Birbalsingh was happy to announce that an extra school would soak up existing local children, with the added benefit that Lambeth would receive a huge injection of cash from central government.  Still following?  There is, of course, the added issue that the huge injection of cash might not be so huge on account of a compulsory purchase, but we'll come to that.

Birbalsingh has a natural gift for anticipating opponents' arguments.  "You might make the argument that a developer would pay more money than central government for a school", she suggested.  That's just what I'd been thinking.  But here she proposed that because the building is listed and has a considerably reduced price-tag, central government might have a chance to compete.  I'm still rather sceptical about that.  Later we learned that central government would only be offering about £2.5 million for each school site, and I'd be more than happy to bet that even despite listing, the former Lilian Baylis site is worth well over £8 million.  But that little question did not arise, and Birbalsingh continued to sell the Free School...

The question the public need to ask, according to Birbalsingh is "whether we'd  prefer the site be sold to developers" or used by a school?  (Note that when politicians present either/or options, there are usually more possibilities to be considered).  At this point, nearly all of team-angry-people, who might normally be in the anti-developer camp looked as though they'd happily sell!   But just as the cogs in the brains of those present were springing into motion, Birbalsingh had moved on to "why Lambeth?"  After all, apparently some enthusiastic people had said "why go to Lambeth?  Go to a Conservative borough".  Birbalsingh even claimed that some Conservative boroughs are purchasing sites for Free School use.  So, why Lambeth?  Apparently, the steering committee chose Lambeth because ordinary people "who don't have the option" live here.  Birbalsingh felt that if Free Schools try to open up in the poorer areas, they're "hounded out".  I felt there was a certain mood of "woe-is-us" and martyr mentality on this point, and it's tied in with the whole "the rich are trying to keep us out" Telegraph column, but who knows, perhaps she's right.

This lead to a suspiciously Conservative-party sounding speech about how poorer children should have the same opportunities as richer children.  (And really, who in their right mind would disagree with this?  The question is how or whether to let market forces dictate the quality of education to which children are entitled...)  But, there was no time for theoretical debates, since we learned that belief in poorer children is why team-hooray-Michaela have been "in the rain... marching around constantly" handing out leaflets to "ordinary" (note... loaded word, that) parents.

There was a brief detour to suggest that that free schools and  academies are nearly the same.  Presumably, this removes the teeth from the arguments of local people who might be opposed to free schools.  Lambeth seems to have a fair number of academies (or planned academies).  Birbalsingh was big on "freedom" and "choice".  Academies and Free Schools "have the same freedoms".  That apparently means "freedom from" local authority to do what you think is best for your community of children.  It meant that an extended school day could be offered.  The steering committee are concerned about Lambeth children leaving school at 3:30pm to go and hang out in chicken shops. Birbalsingh felt that keeping them until 5pm meant they would be likely to do that.  (Again, it's not really possible to disagree here, but I'm not clear about whether ordinary schools aren't free to extend their days, as I know very little about education).  We were also told that the proposed Michaela school would hold media awareness classes "because young black boys look at MTV and think they want to be a gangster or a rapper".  I felt this was something of a racial stereotype.  Young boys (whatever their colour) want to be footballers and celebrities...  But you get the general gist of where the argument was going.  So, this interlude finished with the assertion that if you're against free schools, then to be consistent, you should be against academies too.  I hadn't entirely figured out why anybody would be against either, but I think I wasn't necessarily part of the target audience.  Nobody expects the Lurker, after all. 

Next, Birbalsingh rounded off the previous argument by point out that Lambeth already has academies and are converting schools into academies when an audience member interjected, "they're being forced to".  Yes, it was acknowledged that some teachers who may be being forced into it, but the heads are not...  So there appeared to be lots of political hot potatoes being thrown around, which will be tricky to understand if you're not familiar with the inner-workings of the education system.

At that point, Anna Tapsell interjected with the first question about local people knowing that the former school site wasn't currently safe for children, and wondering whether the money for the capital project would come from.  Birbalsingh was confident that the money would come from central government who would buy the building from Lambeth and provide money for refurbishment.  (I'm sure I read a Council document that suggested it needed £10 million worth of repairs...).  Anna Tapsell further pressed the point about whether it was refurbishable, and Birbalsingh admitted it was out of the steering committees' hands, and up to Partnership for Schools to decide.

Birbalsingh had clearly done her homework on the likely voting patterns of those present, and was doing everything to avoid being tarred with the Conservative brush.  She noted that some people had asked how free schools could be good if they're a Conservative idea?  But she quickly batted that back and suggested that Academies emerged from Labour (supported by Kate Hoey, MP), and Free Schools are basically the same, ergo, they couldn't be all bad.  Lots more impassioned pleas about "freedom to do what's right for their children" were added.  Also, more on "ordinary families" being "desperate" for a new school.  Birbalsingh distanced herself from the Conservatives, "I'm not a Conservative.  I'm not." and clarified that she believed that "the black community" (and then everybody) should be floating voters.

Anna Tapsell asked about the submission process.  The bid has apparently already been submitted.  The interview will be in August.  It is  possible that the Michaela Steering Committee will go for interview and not pass it.  If the interview is passed, Partnership for Schools will write a report on the school's viability.  If the school isn't viable, Michaela Free School "may be forced" to go to another London Borough.

I will leave Part 1 (a whole post dedicated to Birbalsingh's argument) with her final offering and summation:
You may feel that for yourselves, or your children, that the school is not right for your children.  That's fine and your choice, but would you want to stop others?  I myself, have nothing to gain personally from it.  When I ended up in the media, people said, that I wanted a political career and doing things in government, but I didn't go there.  I'm not and I'm here talking to you about a school because my heart is in education.  I continue to speak of education. It's hard.  From my perspective, you should know that it's not easy being me. 
Part 2 of the Michaela Free School debate continued provides a summary of all of the points, questions and clarifications made in response to Katharine Birbalsingh's speech above.

1 comment:

Tony Roberts said...

If Lambeth schools are indeed full, then it is perplexing to understand why the Council won't support a new approach to education that will help to ease the burden.

Could it be that they want complete control? This isn't the case across other public sector areas where they are more than keen to offload the burden to outside agencies.

Education is different as it holds significant political capital. Politicising it is very distasteful.

For the record, Lambeth Schools may be full, but not full of Lambeth children:

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/school_children_living_in_lambet#incoming-187973

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