How to build a new school

WHAT a mess the process of creating a new secondary school for pupils in Oxford has become.

Way back when government know what it was doing and how to conduct itself properly, the creation of new schools for an expanding population was a partnership between the relevant local authority and the government department in London.

Then came Labour’s academy programme and then Michael Gove’s desire to promote so-called ‘free schools’.

Especially in respect of the latter, local authorities became side-lined once they had identified a need or even if they had not done so, if a promoter want to create a ’free school’ in a particular area. The same was also true for UTCs (university technical colleges) and studio schools.

Oxfordshire’s identification of the need for new secondary school in Oxford in their Pupil Place Plan in 2015 attracted the interest of Toby Young, the promoter of a free school in West London.

As a result, a second proposal for a free school was launched by what is now the River Learning Trust – a multi-academy trust based in Oxfordshire.

This trust was successful in being granted permission to operate the new ‘free school’ in September 2015.

Local authorities can oversee the development of new academies and Oxfordshire has successfully done so for several new schools, including the new secondary school in Didcot, which opened on time.

However, the development of free schools is the responsibility of the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

In July 2016, I asked a question at the county council about the possible site for the new school and was told: “The sponsor’s and EFA’s current preferred location for The Swan School remains The Harlow Centre.”

The cabinet member who answered did not know when the school might open and how it would be linked to the annual school admissions.

Fast-forward two years until 2018, and at county council in March 2018 I was told in answer to another question that ‘the completion for the Swan School may not be ready until 2021’ and a planning application should be submitted by the end of May.

I was told that in summer 2019 Meadowbrook College, on the proposed Swan School site, should start to be demolished and its new build would complete by September 2020.

In early 2021 the Swan School should be complete but until then the school will probably be in temporary accommodation for two years, the answer added.

So, by March 2018, it was already known that the school would be two years late and have to open in temporary accommodation.

At county council in July, I asked more questions about progress, including if we had absolute assurance that the Education and Skills Funding Agency would not pull the Swan School given the delay in receiving planning permission.

The cabinet member undertook to ask the agency for an answer.

We can assume that the trust still wish to go ahead with the scheme, as there is still a need for a new school. With the appointment of a headteacher, this must still be the intention.

However, it seems increasingly unlikely that it will open in 2021, and temporary accommodation will need to be found if the first round of pupil is to arrive in 2019.

It is assumed that planning permission will be required for any temporary buildings needed from September 2019.

In July 2018, I asked at county council whether, in view of the very large number of children from within the EU that are within city primary schools, who would be transferring into the secondary sector in the next few years’, the school might not be built as a result of Brexit.

I have not received an answer to that question.

The city council’s East Area Planning Committee turned down the planning application for the school at their meeting in September – a decision that was called in and will be reconsidered today.

The county council’s cabinet will discuss the Swan School in an exempt session tomorrow.

The whole saga from start to the current uncertain situation shows the lack of coherence in our present education system.

Under the former rules, it seems certain that the county council, having identified the need for a secondary school, would have designed and built it in time for a 2019 opening, possibly even 2018.

Even had the school been designated an academy, this might have been achieved.

The creation of the school as a ‘free school’ has created delay and allowed concerns about the site to create the present high degree of uncertainty.

The situation for parents in the city of Oxford is now complicated with respect to admissions to secondary school for 2019.

Parents in Oxfordshire have been short-changed by this shambolic process and county council taxpayers stand to lose out for up to three years if the temporary accommodation requires pupils to be offered free transport to school.

Should the new school not be built, the ongoing cost to council taxpayers in additional transport costs could be considerable, depending upon how many of the 1,260 pupils would be eligible for free transport.

In the present financial climate, this cost could probably only be met by cutting other council services.

Were Oxford part of a unitary council structure, then school place planning would have been a function of the council deciding the planning application.

Under the two-tier system currently in operation across Oxfordshire, the city council is the planning authority, but the county council has the responsibility for pupil place planning and the number of schools.

However, the county has lost control over the building of these new schools.

This article first appeared in the Oxford Mail on 15th October 2018. As many readers know, I am an Oxfordshire County Councillor and the Lib Dem spokesperson on education on the county.

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Councils lose another education role

The Conservative government has lost no time in taking another duty with regard to education away from local government. In his letter of the 15th June to the directors of children’s services, Lord Nash, the Minister, gave local authorities just 15 days’ notice that they would no longer has responsibility for choosing the sponsor for a new school. Many years ago the Blair government started the process that has led to this letter by mandating that all new secondary schools should be academies. This was later extended to all new schools. Local authorities retained the responsibility to run the beauty competition to decide the sponsor to suggest to the DfE. That appears now to have been handed to the unelected regional school commissioners. So much for localism.

As far as I can see there has been no explanation for this decision and no clarification as to whether it applies only to new competitions or also to those already under discussion and not finalised by the 1st July. It may be that the DfE was irritated at some of the choices made by local authorities: it certainly made Oxfordshire re-run the process for selecting the operator for a new primary school as it didn’t like the outcome, this despite the sponsor selected being on the DfE approved list. The fact that the re-run process produced the same outcome may have led to this draconian and precipitous change in the selection process.

For those councils that don’t like the academy process the letter can probably be ignored since they can seemingly continue to expand existing maintained primary schools by adding on extra classes. Whether it might now tempt some Conservative local authorities that care about their local schools, but have supported academies in the past, to do the same would be an interesting outcome.

Certainly, counties with lots of new house building, and I suppose there aren’t many of them given how few houses are being built nationally, now face the possibility of having to deal with academy chains located a long way from county hall and possibly with little local knowledge. Even worse, the academy can fix its size and if new houses are added to the development can refuse to expand: seemingly at present with neither the regional commissioner nor the DfE being able to do anything about such a situation. That it could increase council spend on home to school transport unnecessarily doesn’t seem to matter. After all, the local authority could always close another library or children’s centre to pay for the buses.

Schooling is now firmly a national service, as I explained earlier today to someone taking the local authority to task because the school where they are a governor wasn’t funded as well as other local schools. I pointed out that the School Forum set the formula and no councillor had a vote unless they were elected as a governor. There is still a widespread belief local authorities run schools. They don’t, and it is now the DfE and their un-elected officials that take the decisions.