The Bolingbroke: Wandsworth's first free school?

Having been a little cynical about the value of some meetings I found myself rather enjoying last night’s full council, despite it being a meeting in which I made no contribution other than voting.

The key debate was on the Bolingbroke free school, and free schools more generally. It was fascinating because, for the first time in a long long time we had a debate about policy at a full council meeting. Usually the debates are rather sterile, over a decision the council is taking. And while this was the same to a degree (the council has, of course, bought the Bolingbroke site from the NHS to create the school) it managed to go beyond it into the broader policy of free schools and education.

Before the election both parties were in favour of the free school. That has now changed for the Labour party. Indeed, listening last night I’m not sure they were ever really in favour of free schools, since they had some pretty fundamental objections. And that’s what made for a good debate – it wasn’t over a decision, it was over principle.

I’m a fan of free schools. I think it’s a good policy. I have faith in the individual to know what’s best for them, and their loved ones. So, just as I believe the NHS reforms are better because they are bring key parts of the NHS closer to the patients, I believe education reforms are better because they give more power to parents.

The Labour party line was two-fold. First, that we shouldn’t spend money on a new school when there was a deficit. This, of course, misses the point that purchasing a school site is a one-off, whereas the deficit is something that recurs every single year – we could use the money to plug the gap, but it would be swallowed after something like four months. The school will remain an asset, and one that brings in rental from the school.

The second was that this is an issue of the have and have-nots. The evidence they offered in support of this was that Northcote, where the Bolingbroke is sited, is one of the borough’s more affluent wards.

Actually the distinction is between the wills and will nots.

Edward Lister, responding to the debate, spoke of his ambition of seeing free schools across the borough. The locations of the schools is not defined by the council, but by the parents. If they want a free school, they can start one and the council will support them. There is no compulsion to either set one up or just sit back and use the existing state provision.

It might be valid to comment that, of course, the policy is skewed towards the more affluent, because they have the wherewithal to organise and set up a school. But I’ve always been uncomfortable with this argument, which seems to me a horribly patronising attitude to suggest a whole group of people are capable of nothing else than being meek clients of the state.

It might well be that we haven’t got the necessary support in place to help people set these schools up (it’s a new policy and I think everyone is learning as they go), but that’s a totally different argument.

But as the debate drew towards an end I heard what I think was the most convincing argument in favour of a free school. And it came from Labour’s Andy Gibbons, their education spokesman! The problem, he explained, was about equality. It’s all very well having a school like the proposed academy at Bolingbroke, but it’s just not fair that it would be better than other schools. And that shocked me; shocked me and persuaded me that the free school was the right thing. Equality is one thing, but essentially they were arguing for absolute equality, uniform education and uniform standards, across the borough. An homogenised education system in which everyone succeeds – or fails – at the same level, where schools have no incentive to improve and parents can only exercise real choice if they are lucky enough to be able to afford private education.

We readily accept competition in so many parts of our life. It’s natural, and we see the benefits, it gives us choice; businesses have to ensure they are offering something different (whether that’s on price, quality or experience) that attracts the ‘customer’. We never (well, rarely) hear the argument that segments of society are unable to take advantage of this competition, so we should close Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose in favour of a state provided supermarket.

The Bolingbroke Academy enhances the ‘competition’. The benefits are not restricted just to that school, but to all the schools that have to ensure they are attracting pupils. And those benefits are not limited just to the area, but will be realised anywhere that enough parents want to set up their own free school.

What’s not to like?

There is no doubt the council’s current consultation on expansion at Belleville is stirring up heated debate. Reading through some of the conversations that are taking place on forums like Streetbook and NappyValleyNet it’s clear there are many different views about the council’s proposed solution to the ‘problem’.

I’ll be honest, I never thought that Belleville would ever impact on Shaftesbury. It is such a popular school that the most Shaftesbury parents could usually expect was disappointment that their children couldn’t get in, however, the council’s proposal to create a ‘satellite’ site on Forthbridge Road has changed all that. But not, I think, for the better.

To give a potted history of the issue Belleville is a popular school. Every year far more parents want their children to go there than there is space. As a consequence the school has been expanded several times. The most recent proposal, to expand into the Forthbridge Road site (previously the Vines and then Paddock school) came after local parents vigorously opposed plans to expand on the main Belleville site.

When the opposition meant expansion on the Belleville site was not an option the education department looked at using the Forthbridge Road site. As Shaftesbury ward councillors we have been involved throughout, quietly trying behind the scenes to influence and improve the proposals which we felt were far from ideal. Jonathan Cook (who has the same views as expressed here) has been particularly active after being thrown in the deep end with this issue straight after his election in May!

Unfortunately, although the proposals changed significantly we were never able to get our main concern addressed: that the council was effectively creating a new school which local children would not be able to attend.

The problem
The problem as the education department sees it is that there are not enough schools places in Northcote, basically the area around Belleville School. There are, however, enough school places in Shaftesbury, the area which contains the proposed satellite site. The logic is that, therefore, it’s not a Shaftesbury problem but a Northcote problem and any new capacity created should go to Northcote children.

Indeed, the initial proposals were that the site would function purely as a part of Belleville, without any chance whatsoever for children from the neighbouring roads to go. In effect residents of Forthbridge Road would get all the pain of a school on the road, the increased traffic morning and afternoon, but no school. It would look like a school and sound like a school, but unless you lived within a few hundred yards of a school a mile away, it wasn’t a school!

The problems with the proposed solution
The ‘second priority area’ might be an improvement from having no local children attending, but making a bad idea a little bit better still results in, fundamentally, a bad idea.

It remains incredibly unlikely that significant numbers of children from the area will get a place. On the council’s projections local children would only be a majority in their local school in one year out of the next ten!

And, frankly, I have doubts local children will ever get places: while Belleville remains such a popular school, parents are still (if they can afford it) going to be moving as close to Belleville as they can. In effect the council is reinforcing and encouraging the behaviour that has already created a super-sized primary.

Even when you look at the details there are flaws: the biggest being that even in the second priority zone priority will still be decided by proximity to the Belleville site – in other words, when spaces are available to Shaftesbury children, those living next door to the Forthbridge Road site will still be at the back of the queue!

I believe in choice in education. Every parent should have the right to choose which school their child attends. However, I also recognise it’s impossible to exactly match supply and demand. As such, I do not think it is necessarily a bad thing that not every parent gets their first choice. However, when many parents fail to get their first choice, and this happens year after year then something needs to be done to address that.

The council deserve credit for trying to address it, even though I think the approach is wrong. It’s a mix of increasing supply (by creating an ever bigger Belleville) while attempting to choke off demand (by creating arbitrary areas outside of which you do not have the choice of Belleville). In effect it’s returning to an old system of catchment areas and reducing, rather than enhancing parental choice. It strikes me as an administrative solution to a difficult problem – it may address the numbers, but doesn’t really satisfy on qualitative issues like parental choice.

A better solution?
I believe there is a better, far more innovative, approach. Instead of tinkering with supply by expanding as far as possible and artificially limiting demand with arbitrary borders we need to address why Belleville is so popular compared to other schools and help create a more competitive education system. Otherwise in a few years time we’ll be having arguments about another satellite site and a tertiary priority zone.

A school is so much more than a building; it’s an ethos, an approach to education, it’s the leadership from the head and the involvement of the parents. Belleville is a successful school not because of the bricks and mortar, but because of all the people involved; teachers, staff, parents and pupils.

Actually Wandsworth is ahead of the game in realising this that a school and a building are not the same thing. We have, for example, the Wix’s Lane site containing both a Wandsworth School and a French LycĂ©e, and are proposing that ‘Belleville’ isn’t just on the Belleville site.

So why aren’t we looking at expanding and duplicating the model? Instead of giving parents just one choice of a massive Belleville, why aren’t we creating new Bellevilles? Why aren’t we taking the Forthbridge Road site and offering it as a potential Free School? Or creating a system of mini-Bellevilles, using the expertise and ethos that already exists to spread a popular model as widely as possible.

Then, instead of having choice only for those who can afford to go private or move next to Belleville, we have choice for all.

I’ve followed, from a distance, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) conference today. Far from having sessions on fat cat salaries this morning seems to have been devoted to dismissing Nudge to move onto a new fad involving social connections.

Nudge was on one of those fads taken up a few years ago on, effectively, changing people’s behaviour with intelligent design. Classic examples include painting a fly on a urinal (which reduced the cleaning needed because men’s aim improved) or creating the illusion of uneven road surfaces (which reduce traffic speed). There are plenty of examples on their blog. The fundamental principle was ‘choice architecture’ – designing the choices people make so it’s easier for them to make the right choice.

Push the button: For some reason everyone approached this as a pump, and assumed it was broken when it didn't work that way.

A few weeks ago we took MiniMe to the Science Museum (mainly because I wanted to see the Apollo 10 command module) where there’s a small area for younger children in the basement. A large part is water play, and one bit has air jets under various obstacles so you can see how air moves through water. The problem is that every single person who tried to activate them attempted to pump the button, very few actually experimented to discover they were buttons and you had to keep them depressed to make them work.

A silly example, perhaps, but an interesting one. The area, designed for 3-6 year olds, although I’m sure MiniMe wasn’t the only one under that limit (he’s not quite two), yet everyone, young and old, repeated that mistake. There was clearly something about the design that encouraged people to pump, but not to push. And the consequence was that no-one used that bit of equipment.

The idea that the concepts behind Nudge should be forgotten, as if it was a pair of 70s flares and a horrible mistake, is a nonsense – if the principles were valid a few years ago they remain valid now. I’m not sure why the change in belief, there is always the pressure to appear modern, but perhaps there is also the difficulty in truly adopting something like Nudge in government.

For a start are political difficulties. For example, I have long liked the idea of rewards for people getting back into, and holding down, work. The argument against is that work is its own reward and people should not need added incentive. However, the reality is that for many the idea of sacrificing 35 hours or more a week of ‘free’ time for a small increase in income is not that enticing. But adding an incentive (which need not be that much, vouchers for McDonald’s or stores) reinforces the positive aspects of working by directly linking work with positive outcomes. I would argue it far outweighs the long, and even short, term costs of unemployment.

There are also administrative and cost difficulties. If you take Wandsworth’s street parties, they were incredibly expensive – largely a result of the work that was necessary on the council’s part (since deemed unnecessary by the government). Moving to a cheap fixed fee helps encourage the behaviour we want, the sense of neighbourhood and belonging, but left us with the same work to be done and the added complication of co-ordinating across a number of events, rather than just one. However, in tough times it might seem hard to justify added costs to the council against intangible benefits to the community.

And finally there are the cultural difficulties. As I touched on yesterday it seems that we live in a culture that is defined by the negative– what you can’t do – rather than the positive – what you can do. It is so much easier and much more comfortable to think and act as enforcers in a black and white world than as the encouragers with ever lighter shades of grey.

Which all set me wondering about Wandsworth. The council is, in the neutral sense of the word, a huge bureaucracy – an effect of thirteen years of government target culture and the Daily Mail mentality that creates a risk-adverse approach to public money. Has this led to us developing barriers that discourage people from acting positively? Do you have any examples? I’d love to hear them.

Wix Primary SchoolOffers of places in the borough’s primary schools last week and while many parents will be pleased with the schools their child has been offered many will have been disappointed. About a third of parents did not get their child into their first choice of school, and while there will still be some change (people may move or transfer to the private sector) there won’t be enough to change to mean everyone gets their choice.

There are many reasons not everyone got their first choice. First, some schools are obviously more popular than others and are over subscribed, and some schools still have spaces, for example, most schools in Battersea still have places remaining. Second, the population change in the borough is not evenly distributed putting more pressure on schools in the south and west of the borough (and likewise leaving spare places in Battersea). Third, the recession has played a part, there are undoubtedly parents who would have moved or opted for the private sector but now find the economy means putting their children into a Wandsworth school.

It is a consequence of choice. Parents’ choices will never conveniently fit existing provision; but choice, even if not perfect, is better than the old ways which saw parents forced to send their children to the nearest school, regardless of their wishes. While not everyone will be entirely satisfied, the majority of parents got their first choice school for their child.

The council will be looking at expanding the entry into a number of schools this Summer (as we did last year) which will ease some of the pressure. But this is an ongoing challenge for the council and the borough’s schools. The best long-term solution, realistically, is improving the standards of all our schools so the first choices are more evenly spread.