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Toby Young writes up Friday's hustings meeting

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It was great to see so many of you at the educational hustings at Twyford on Friday night, including all three Prospective Parliamentary Candidates for Ealing Central and Acton.

The following is a summary of where the parties said they stood when it came to our proposal to set up a parent-sponsored Academy in the borough.

For Parliament:

• The Conservatives: Angie Bray confirmed that allowing groups like ours to set up free schools is one of the Conservative Party’s flagship social policies and she was confident that under the Tories the Department for Children, Schools and Families would make sufficient capital funding available to enable us to set up our school. She also confirmed that if the Conservatives win the election they will remove the veto power that local authorities currently have over the set up of new Academies meaning it won’t matter what colour Ealing Council is – blue, red or yellow.

• The Liberal Democrats: Jon Ball said that while the Liberal Democrats were interested in allowing parents to sponsor schools and the schools to develop their own ethos, they would insist that any new schools, including Academies, are set up in partnership with local authorities. Asked if he thought it probable that the Parliamentary Party would insist on that as a condition of supporting the Conservatives’ education policy in a hung Parliament, he responded that they were concerned about the negative effect of free schools on neighbouring schools and they believed that granting local authorities “strategic oversight” over the creation of all new schools was the best way to safeguard against this.

Consequently, if the Liberal Democrats win an overall majority on Thursday or hold the whip hand in a hung Parliament it is likely that our group will not be able to make any progress unless it secures the blessing of Ealing Council. He also said that the Liberal Democrats are committed to changing the School Admissions Code so faith schools like Twyford will no longer be able to give preference to children of a particular faith – at least, not to the extent that they do at present.

• Labour: Bassam Mahfouz acknowledged that there would shortly be a need for a new secondary school in the borough, in addition to the one Ealing Council is planning to build in Greenford, but said he would favour the creation of a cooperative trust school in partnership with the local authority rather than a parent-sponsored Academy. He suggested that the key thing wasn't "what you call it, but how it works.” He said there would be an opportunity for local parents to have an input into such a school, along with other stakeholders in the borough.

For the council:

• The Conservative council candidates were extremely positive and said they were four square behind this initiative and would provide whatever support we needed. Angie Bray pointed out that Jason Stacey, the Conservative leader of the Council, made a public statement in support of the West London Free School earlier in the week. They suggested that we might want to discuss with the Council in due course support services that we might need from them.

• The Liberal Democrats were the least sympathetic of the three main parties to what we want to do. Harvey Rose, the leader of the Lib Dem group contesting the local elections, said they were not in favour of free schools and that we should be trying to raise standards from inside the borough’s existing schools rather than trying to set up a new one and they were concerned that funding for a new free school in the borough would divert resources from the existing secondary schools. He conceded that there might be a need for a new school in the borough in due course, but was adamant that it should be set up by the local authority. When I asked him whether there might be any circumstances in which a Liberal Democrat controlled Council would support our initiative, he said it was unlikely. “You would have a mountain to climb,” he said. However, when pushed he did say they would be prepared to listen to us.

• The Labour council candidates denied that there was a need for a greater range of different schools in the borough and said that local parents already have a choice if they’re prepared to get on the bus or tube and go out of borough. They said that in the event of regaining control of Ealing Council they would be willing to listen to any proposals our group might bring forward, but would need to be persuaded that a parent-sponsored Academy was the best way of meeting the need for additional secondary school places in the borough. Their Shadow Finance Spokesperson appeared to become increasingly interested in our scheme as the evening progressed and said that personally she recognised the benefit of diversity in educational provision.

We would like to thank all the candidates that took part on Friday. All three parties’ representatives engaged in a lively, but respectful exchange and the evening remained broadly good-humoured throughout. There is no doubt that all the candidates care a good deal about education in the borough, with a surprising number either currently serving or having served as governors of local primary and secondary schools.

We would also like to thank Alice Hudson and Tony McKee at Twyford who kindly allowed us to use the Performance Centre and the Twyford students who ensured the event ran smoothly.

Finally, could I take this opportunity to draw your attention to the consultation Ealing Council is carrying out about the sort of school the new high school in Greenford ought to be? The Church of England Diocese has expressed an interest in running the school in federation with Twyford, mirroring Twyford’s ethos and standards but without the faith-based admissions policy. I’m 100% supportive of this initiative and have described the sort of school I would like the West London Free School to be as a “secular faith school”. If you could take the time to fill out this survey and make your feelings known it would undoubtedly help their cause.

Toby Young

May 4, 2010