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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