West London Free School Is Step Closer

On Government list but it might not be in Ealing

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The West London Free School, one of the first of its kind to be set up and the brainchild of journalist and West London resident Toby Young, is on a government list of the first 16 'free schools' to be set up under the coalition.

Details of the 16 schools were released this week by Education Secretary Michael Gove.

Mr Young has cautiously welcomed the news. He said, "This is a huge step forward for us, but you won't hear the sound of champagne corks popping quite yet."

The school is listed as being in "Ealing or Hammersmith and Fulham", but Toby said "it could also be in Brent or Hounslow."

Seven of the schools listed are in Greater London; half of the schools are in Conservative-run areas and at least five are faith schools.

Mr Gove said the schools, which will be state funded but not under the control of local authorities, had all been driven by demand from local people.

Toby Young said: "The approval we’ve been given, along with the 15 other schools, is to proceed to the next stage in the process which is the preparation of our outline business case. Only after that’s been approved will we be on the home straight.

"I appreciate that the continuing uncertainty around our opening date must be frustrating for the teachers who’ve contacted us hoping to work at the school and for prospective parents, particularly those with children currently in Year 6. The Department for Education has given us until January of next year to start hiring staff and admitting students for entry in September and I'm still optimistic that we can meet that deadline.

"We’ve extended our site search to Hounslow, Brent and Hammersmith and Fulham and are zeroing in on some very promising prospects.

"Those of you who live in Ealing shouldn’t be disheartened by this since we’ve been granted permission by the Department for Education to admit most of the pupils via a lottery. That is to say, if the school is oversubscribed we’ll allocate some places to looked after children, some to children with Special Educational Needs and some to those who live locally, but the majority of places will be allocated on a completely random basis, regardless of how far the applicant lives from the school.

"Not only will the absence of a catchment area give every interested parent a fighting chance, it will prevent more affluent parents from being able to, effectively, buy a place at the school by moving in to the right neighbourhood. We want every applicant to have an equal chance of getting into the West London Free School, regardless of how wealthy his or her parents are.

"The other advantage of this admissions policy is that it will cause the minimum of disruption to West London's existing secondary schools. The fact that a majority of our school's pupils will be sourced from such a wide area means that no school will end up becoming under-subscribed as a result of our school opening nearby.

"At the beginning of this process we intended to subcontract the day-to-day operation of the school to an experienced education provider. However, after much soul-searching we’ve now decided to operate the school ourselves. My main reservation about going it alone 12 months ago was that our group lacked the expertise to run a secondary school. But as more and more teachers have joined the Steering Committee, that anxiety has begun to recede.

"The latest teacher to join our group is John McIntosh who, for 29 years, was the Headmaster of the London Oratory, one of the half-dozen most academically successful comprehensives in the country. With him on board, along with all the other teachers on the Steering Committee, I'm confident we can meet the challenges ahead. In any event, a good Head and Senior Leadership Team should be able to take care of the management of the school without our needing to get involved.

"I’m still hopeful that we can open our school next year, particularly now that we’ve been given the go-ahead by the Department."

Legislation to allow parents, charities and businesses to set up these schools was passed before Parliament broke up for the summer.

Labour MPs said the proposals were flawed and "rushed through", and several Lib Dem MPs expressed misgivings about their impact on existing schools.

Critics have claimed that Free Schools are expensive to run niche schools, that they will spring up in wealthy areas and drain resources from existing schools. The West London Free School, being promoted by a group of parents led by Toby Young, has won outline approval.

Mr Gove said: "I am delighted that so many promising proposals have come forward at such an early stage. I hope that many of the projects progressing today will become the first free schools in September 2011. This is a challenging timescale, and some groups may decide that it is preferable to open at a later date for practical reasons."

He added that each group would now be given support from the Department for Education. But final approval would only be given after officials had approved a final business case, he said.

On Sunday, Mr Gove defended the free schools policy, saying that the number of early applications had exceeded his hopes. More than 700 groups had initially expressed interest in the idea and about 100 had actually applied. Many of those interested in the scheme were teachers at existing schools in deprived areas who wanted to transform educational standards, he said.

Labour say demand for free schools - state funded institutions outside local authority control - is meagre and the government's priorities are wrong. "It is laughable for Michael Gove to claim that just 16 free schools opening next year exceeds his expectations," shadow education secretary Ed Balls said. "He has spent the last four months working on a plan for just a dozen schools, while cancelling hundreds of new schools and dashing the hopes of 700,000 children."

The 16 free schools listed are:

  • Bedford and Kempston Free School, Bedford
  • The Childcare Company, Slough
  • Discovery New School, West Sussex
  • The Free School Norwich, Norfolk
  • Haringey Jewish Primary School, Haringey
  • I-Foundation Primary School, Leicester (Hindu)
  • King's Science Academy, Bradford
  • Mill Hill Jewish Primary School, Barnet
  • Nishkam Education Trust, Birmingham (Sikh)
  • North Westminster Free School (ARK), Westminster (ARK is an existing academy sponsor)
  • Priors Marston and Priors Hardwick School, Warwickshire
  • Rivendale Free School, Hammersmith and Fulham
  • St. Luke's School, Camden (Anglican)
  • Stour Valley Community School, Suffolk
  • West London Free School, Ealing or Hammersmith and Fulham
  • Wormholt North Hammersmith Free School (ARK), Hammersmith and Fulham (to be known as Burlington Primary Academy)

September 9, 2010