Why Can’t We Have Local Hearings For Free Schools?

Zoe Williams has written a piece for the Guardian about the current Free Schools debacle. Discovery Free School has been given notice it must close. Al-Madinah Free School is still in disarray. And though there is notable quiet about King’s Science Academy there appears to be movement in the background over it, and a few other schools, with regard to dodgy finances.

While I’m not so daft as to believe that if the government had been transparent about the whole policy from the outset no schools would have failed, I can’t help but think that secrecy has contributed to many of the problems. The continued lack of scrutiny around applications, what was promised, how new schools were decided upon and their pre-opening inspections meant that officials could get away with making decisions that were not in the best interests of the children who might end up in those schools. Did they make bad decisions? We still don’t know, because the information I have been requesting for over a year still hasn’t been released.

I discussed this with Zoe and she quoted me in her piece:

The key point, (Laura) says, is this: “There isn’t a process in which local people at the moment are easily able to make their voices heard. There is a requirement to do a consultation. And the only people who know what is written about that consultation are the people who write it and the DfE. So we have no way of checking if what happened in the room actually went to the DfE. We’re not saying local people should have a veto, I’m not saying they’re necessarily right. But we must be able to see the process of having their voices heard and, if you decide not to listen to them, the process of deciding not to listen to them.”

I stand by what I said. In the US almost every state holds local public meetings where people can put forward their arguments for, or against, a new charter school (equivalent to frees). Decisions must also be made publicly, with reasons given that explain why certain objections were – or were not – accepted. Even where decisions are not made publicly they are requestable via state Freedom of Information laws [and in a way which doesn’t require a year of faff].

At present the Department for Education seems to be going down a road of having 8 Regional Commissioners and some kind of quasi-elected-academy-only body of advisors in order to provide some kind of “local accountability”. Except, if these regional commissioners simply make the decisions in the same secretive way as the DfE then we’re not really getting anything more accountable, or anything more local.

Far simpler, I think, to keep the whole thing centralised but (a) make it transparent – publishing applications as they are received, (b) have local hearings, and (c)publish public decision notices with full explanations of reasons behind the decision. It happened in a similar way before 2010, why not now?

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