The West London Free School Steering Committee

Forward steps for Toby Young's new school

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In Toby Young's front room this week, tv cameras, journalists, advisors and a feisty black cat jostled with the Steering Committee for the West London Free School - the secondary school the journalist and author is determined to start in Acton.

The meeting was to discuss moving things forward and to talk through matters which were expected to come up at an important meeting on Thursday with Ealing Council and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).

There is also to be a launch party for the West London Free School on Friday evening at the Rocket in Churchfield Road. Newsnight are making a 15-minute film and there will be cameras present at the party. The Newsnight team want to provide views from parents with children at local schools and would welcome contact from those with children at Acton High School. (See links in box, right).

Support from Ealing Council and from the DCSF is crucial to the committee. They already have expressions of support from around 250 local parents with children at local primary schools.

Two advisors with experience of helping groups to set up new state schools were at the meeting: Louise Allanach from EC Harris Built Asset Consultancy and Graham Burns, a solicitor with relevant legal expertise. Jo Alexander, who has 15 years' experience working with the Ethnic Minority Achievement Service also contributed to the discussion.

The subject of starting a new school has obviously been thoroughly researched by the group. They are in touch with the New Schools Network and have decided that their best option is to start an Academy. Apparently, both this Government and the Opposition are in favour of parent groups being involved in running schools.

The lively discussion covered possible sites for the school, how to raise money to buy a site (which, it is hoped, will be within 1 mile of Acton Central Station), Sweden, where 17% of secondary school pupils attend Free Schools (and the competition has apparently produced better results across all schools there), provision for ethnic minorities and special needs children, class sizes and the admissions procedure.

The Steering Committee is egged on and inspired by a number of successful examples. These include Elmgreen School in Lambeth which was set up by a group of local parents in 2007, and a school in Los Angeles called the Renaissance Arts Academy where every child has to learn a stringed instrument and Latin is compulsory up to the age of 18.

Demographics in Lambeth showed that there was a need for a new school and Graham Burns believes that the situation is similar in Ealing.

After a meeting today with Ian Gibb, Deputy Council Leader and portfolio holder for Children's Services at Ealing Council, and officers from the DCSF, Toby said:

"The officials from the Department for Children, Schools and Families were very enthusiastic about our plans for a new, Parent Promoted school, but as we anticipated they also made it clear that unless we can show that Ealing's plans to increase the number of secondary school places between now and 2016 are insufficient to meet the increase in demand we won't be able to persuade the Government to release the necessary funds to set up our school.

"Consequently, we're now going to focus on doing precisely that. That isn't going to be easy because Ealing has done a good job of preparing for the increase in demand -- it's setting up a new high school in Greenford, for instance. But we're cautiously optimistic that even with this additional capacity in place the number of secondary school places in Ealing won't be sufficient to meet the increase in demand.

"It's worth bearing in mind that while the DCSF won't currently finance a new school unless you can demonstrate an insufficiency of school places in your area, the Tories have said they'll drop that requirement. They want supply to outstrip demand in order to stimulate competition between school providers. So if we fail to persuade the DCSF to finance our school under the existing rules, we'll simply wait until there's been a regime change and try again."

Posts on the discussion forum are generally supportive, though some have taken issue with the idea of the school, saying that it will take money away from existing schools and that it's all too elitist. Toby has replied and the thread is now increasingly full of messages of support, alongside the sceptics.

He says: "I'm 100 per cent confident that in the long term we'll be successful."


November 20, 2009