The government’s free school programme just got sinister

The more you learn about Sulivan School, the more irrational and unfair the Tory council's proposal to close it looks.

Shortly before breaking up for the summer holidays this year, a community primary school in Fulham suddenly and unexpectedly found itself under threat of closure.

Parents and teachers at Sulivan Primary School, London, were understandably shocked at the news, for Sulivan is a successful school which is oversubscribed in the lower year groups: in other words, none of the normal reasons for school closure apply.

But the Tory Council doesn’t want to close Sulivan School for normal reasons. They want to close it so that its land can be given to a free school, specifically a Church of England school for boys aged 11-19.

These proposals are being fiercely contested by Sulivan’s staff, pupils, parents and local residents in a battle which has significance far beyond South West London; for if a free school can trump the needs of local parents and pupils in Fulham simply because it is a free school, why not elsewhere?

The more you learn about Sulivan School and educational provision in Hammersmith and Fulham, the more irrational and unfair the proposal becomes.

At its last inspection the school was rated good with outstanding features by Ofsted.  The percentage of its pupils eligible for free school meals is well above the national average, as is the number of pupils who speak English as an additional language. According to Ofsted’s most recent report, ‘from starting points which are below average, pupils of all abilities make good progress, leaving Year 6 with standards which are broadly average.’

Pupils at Sulivan School enjoy exactly the type of innovative and inspiring teaching for which Michael Gove so often praises free schools. The school has a meadow, a vegetable plot and flower beds where pupils garden and outdoor science lessons are held. Ofsted also recognised that the school forges excellent links with the local community through sporting and charitable events.

Ripping out this school from the heart of the community could potentially be justified if it were failing to meet the needs of a changing local population, but primary school places are exactly what Hammersmith and Fulham needs at the moment, along with so many London boroughs. On current predictions, Hammersmith and Fulham faces a 2.9 per cent shortfall in primary places by 2014, yet the plans to close Sulivan School will result in a decrease in primary places.

At the moment, Sulivan School takes a maximum of 45 pupils per year. Current pupils will be moved to a different school, New Kings Primary, which is to be extended in order to accommodate them – New Kings currently has an intake of 30 pupils per year. New intakes to this enlarged school will then be capped at 60, reducing the combined capacity of the two schools by 20 per cent.

In contrast, there is no shortage of secondary school places in the area. As a parent writing on the Local Schools Network site describes, the Sulivan site is within “100 yards … of a secondary judged to be outstanding by Ofsted but with places available’”, and is also near a secondary school which is the highest ranked boys school in London when looking at progress made by students. That also has spare capacity.

This whole debacle makes a mockery of the principles that are supposed to underlie the government’s educational reforms. Gove frequently boasts that this government responds to the needs of parents by giving them and other groups the freedom to meet local demand where the state has failed to do so. In Fulham the opposite is true, with the state trying to forcibly remove a school which local parents desperately want to stay.

Passions are running high among Sulivan supporters. Between 250 and 300 crammed into a meeting at the school earlier this month, following a controversial public meeting at New Kings Primary where approximately 60 supporters of Sulivan School were reportedly turned away by Council bouncers.

The scale and intensity of the support for Sulivan School is not surprising. If a popular, successful school is already in place, natural justice dictates that a new school should not be able to oust it, unless that school can demonstrate exceptional reasons why it should do so.

Perhaps that’s why the Council has stated in its consultation that freeing up Sulivan’s land for a free school is only an “added benefit” of proposals that would have been made anyway. The reason for this, they say, is that both primaries are small and undersubscribed and would benefit from the economies of scale that an “amalgamation” would bring. This would free up funding for additional spaces in more popular primary schools.

The only way the Council can make this case stack up is by filling the consultation documents with misrepresentations and errors. Most importantly, they have used outdated roll figures to wrongly state that Sulivan is undersubscribed in all year groups and therefore not a popular choice for parents. They also fail even to consider transferring pupils from the smaller New Kings School to Sulivan.

As many Sulivan supporters have pointed out, this would be more logical given that their school is the larger and has space to expand while still retaining its special features.

The consultation ends on 8 October with a final decision due in December. If the Council ploughs on regardless, it is likely that it will face a judicial review of the decision. Hammersmith and Fulham Council is no stranger to judicial review, having previously tried and failed to close another community school after campaigners issued legal proceedings. You’d have hoped that they’d have learned their lesson.

The campaign to save Sulivan Primary School from unnecessary closure is now on Twitter.

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11 Responses to “The government’s free school programme just got sinister”

  1. Tim

    Would you say this is a class issue? On first glance it seems that it is. I would say that ‘free schools’ represent class war, and like a kind of class cleansing in that very English Middle class way. We can be despised, jeered at and held in contempt if we get in their way, and somehow this is still acceptable in a modern so-called democratic society.
    The rich dominate us all, the Middle class dominate the Working class and we have to get on as best we can. Society is getting meaner again, and someone has to be the scapegoat.

  2. asteya

    What are the implications regarding Judicial Reviews? My understanding is that Judicial reviews are to cease under the coalitions reform of the law. Is this the case with education decisions? and would it impact this and other similar cases that are surely to follow. ie Will it become possible for councils to force these things through in future?

  3. bluecatbabe

    It may well be, Tim. Looks also like a gender issue to me, too, as the current school serves both girls and boys, when the C of E secondary school being forced in is specifically boys only. How will that impact on available school places for girls in the area? And a confessional issue, too – faith schools are allowed to discriminate in selection on the basis of the children’s (that is the parents’) avowed religious affiliations.
    Anyway, the school sounds lovely and it appears to be doing a great job. I would personally always prefer primary schools to be small (other things being equal), as that makes them much friendlier and less intimidating, as well as often resulting in a better pastoral ethos where everyone knows everyone.

  4. Ellen Rose

    I definitely agree here. Having grown up in Fulham, I have seen with my own eyes the gap between rich and poor widen as private house prices rise and council homes remain providing much needed housing to those that cant afford £1m houses in Fulham.
    Knowing some of the people involved in the free school proposals, I think the main reason these people want a CofE Free School is not because they want their children to be taught about God & the Bible, but because they don’t want to send their precious sons to mix with the “rough” locals (i.e. lower class / poor) at the other secondary schools. When they started campaigning in about 2010, they said there were “no school options for boys-only” when this was NOT true – they just didn’t know it because it didn’t have a ‘posh’ enough reputation. Instead they want to segregate them and try to copy the CofE girls’ secondary, Lady Margaret School, where I went, which (although fairly mixed when I was there) has a reputation of being “posh” and therefore ‘suitable’ for their children. They have to let parents know what church has agreed to be affiliated with them by letting them know that it’s “opposite Waitrose”. If you lived in Fulham and REALLY wanted to send your child to a church school because of religious reasons, you would KNOW where that church was.
    Also, when Hurlingham & Chelsea (a good large comprehensive mixed school that serves a LOT of the community) was under threat of closure, they didn’t care then about the number of places for boys going down. Why? Because they would never send their precious kids there anyway.
    It makes me FUME.

  5. Rhiannon

    As someone who went to a Catholic Primary school before there was such a thing as free schools and found it to be a very good school, as a humanist now, and as a firm supporter of science (because believer in isn’t quite right), I do find it is a bit of a step back with faith schools. The population is becoming progressively more agnostic at the very least. My school was great; but it had nothing to do with the fact it was Catholic and everything to do with the people involved.

  6. Conrad

    I don’t think this is about the Middle Class attacking the working class as the teachers at these State Primary’s are Middle Class, the majority of which just want to help their students get ahead. That being said, it is still definitely Class war but the only people this sort of thing helps are those who own shares in company’s that run free schools which would largely be the oft hated 1%.

    In reality this hurts everyone involved in the dispute, The Free School may end up dealing with overcapacity and the restructuring will naturally take time and resources up for both the schools, leading to a worse quality of education for all those concerned.

  7. Tim

    What angers me especially about many Middle class people is that they are all very careful not to appear racist in any way and bleat on about black rights and immigrants rights and so on, which is fair enough and I agree with that, but the same people can be utterly prejudiced against poor Working class people and no one tackles them on this; why is one prejudice tacitly accepted and another (supposedly) not accepted? It is double standards and the usual hypocrisy from the nice well mannered Middle class folk, whose only real interests are for themselves and the only rights they are interested in are their own.
    I agree with you entirely; religion has nothing to do with it at all. If these people were truly Christian they would see value in all people, as it is they represent the elitist attitudes of so many English people. Class is not called the English disease for nothing after all. It infects everything, throwing up tin pot Napoleons everywhere filled with their own self importance and an overblown sense of entitlement.
    I may add, that until politics, religion, the law and many other spheres of British social life and the many institutions that govern us or have influence over us as a nation one way or the other are opened up to more Working class people, this will be the outcome. Most of the institutions are top heavy with Middle class people, and they are always going to watch out for each other.

  8. Debbie Nugus

    Its probably more to do with building contracts and behind the scenes agreements with senior council staff, councillors and people in the local education department. The free market now largely operating in education means this paves the way. I don’t think its as sophisticated as ‘class war’ and nothing to do with gender.

  9. Annie

    Judicial review is still possible but the government is looking at restricting who can bring a claim, among other reforms. They’ve made it harder to bring a claim and they’re looking at making it harder still, but Sulivan School could bring one if it came to it.

  10. Ellen Rose

    Have you seen their website? A sea of white faces…except for one boy who is mixed-race (I think they put in 2 pictures of him to show they’re *so* not racist).
    Most of the secondary schools in Fulham with available places (that these people don’t want to send their kids to) are hugely multicultural. The two schools being amalgamated are also two of the most diverse and not-predominantly-white primary schools in the borough.
    It says something about how difficult it is for non-white people to move up the archaic & class-bound social-ladder, and a small part of me does wonder if race maybe comes into it and they don’t practice what they preach…at least not if they don’t have the same amount of money/contacts as them…

  11. SimonNorwich

    The government is handing over control of schools to religious groups and then needing to employ MI5 to investigate some of those schools when, surprise surprise, they start trying to indoctrinate children with religion. For what other purpose do they suppose religious groups want to run schools ?

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