The French ambassador presenting the LabelFrancEducation certificate to the school

My children’s school, Shaftesbury Park (where I’m also lucky enough to be chair of governors), has become the first school in the country to get LabelFrancEducation accreditation from the French ministry of education. The certificate was formally handed over by the French Ambassador, His Excellency Jean-Pierre Jouyet in a short ceremony this week.

The French promotion of their language is, obviously, a diplomatic tool. And a very good one. Listening to the ambassador during the presentation I realised that, despite Brexit1 and my execrable French, I felt a vicarious membership of a wider community. It also highlighted to me that, aside from the technical and economic difficulties that will leave us poorer after Brexit, we will also be culturally impoverished by cutting ourselves off from global interchange. Theresa May seems determined that whatever the cost of Brexit we will stop those foreign types from coming here and making our country better.

That is a shame. The international perspective is a big part of the school (it also got its International School Award accreditation from the British Council recently) it offers a unique curriculum mix. The school uses the international primary curriculum to encourage children to not just learn facts, but to make connections and really think about the world. It also offers the enterprise approach which teaches them the ‘soft skills’ they will carry with them for their life. One bit of research showed that children given just a few years training in those skills at a young age were still outperforming their peers on pretty much every measure when they were forty2.

But if the curriculum is teaching them to think about their world and the enterprise approach is teaching how they can change their world then French is the gateway that enlarges their world. I know from taking my own children abroad how much it has improved their confidence and there’s something rather nice knowing that even at a young age they don’t see arbitrary borders or different languages as barriers.

There’s also something intrinsically hopeful in it. I think the Brexit vote was the result of the EU getting the blame for long-term failings of English (and I think primarily English) national and local government and I am not sure we will find any way out but by paying the consequences of that vote. But if we can create a skilled, thoughtful and outward-looking generation perhaps in the future we will rectify both those failings and our current insular trajectory.

    1. The ambassador expressed some frustration about the whole process in comments he addressed to Marsha de Cordova, although I fear she is Corbyn before country on this one.
    2. Heckman et al, The American Economic Review vol. 103(6), pp. 2052-2086

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?

The council’s executive committee unanimously approved the decision to revisit the Belleville admissions policy last night. This was a final formal hurdle, since under the council’s executive and scrutiny model the Overview and Scrutiny Committees (OSCs) don’t have formal decision-making powers.

The practice is that the executive committee will rubber stamp the OSC views, recognising the OSCs ability to undertake detailed study, discussion and debate. There was a strange paper (opens a PDF) from the director of children’s services reminding members of their power to accept, reject or insert their own amendment which worried me slightly, but proved irrelevant when the time came.

It does point out that it means the existing criteria will stay until 2013 because of the consultation timetables (not, you might think, that much heed has been given to consultations in the past!) but in fact this is probably a slight win for the ward since several roads within the Shaftesbury ward are closer to Belleville than roads within the proposed first priority area they are now have a better chance of getting places. Of course, roads near the Forthbridge Road site will still miss out – but then they would not have any places in any event!

Now that the formal decision has been taken it’s up to us to make sure that meaningful discussions take place about a more meaningful set of admissions criteria.

One of the things that has impressed me throughout is the maturity of approach of the Forthbridge Road residents, who were perfectly happy to accept the need for places to be given to children from around Belleville, just not happy with the total exclusion of children near Forthbridge Road. Similarly, my suspicion is that Belleville recognises the inequity of soaking up all the places in a school without any concession to its neighbourhood. The challenge will be finding the right balance and coming up with a model that is flexible enough to respond to the inevitable changes in behaviour that will result.

It’s an odd, but strangely liberating, experience to have broken rank and spoken out against the council.

Last night was the first time I’ve ever ‘rebelled’ by speaking (but not voting, as I’m not a committee member) against the proposed admissions policy for Belleville School.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I, or any councillor, usually agrees 100% with what their party or group or administration says or does. It means that we are all coalitions, even when it’s just one party in the coalition. We all have different views on different things, but our views have enough in common that we can work together on the shared ground and operate a system of give and take on those issues over which we disagree. But the consequence is a constant cognitive dissonance, and while it’s usually fairly insignificant and easily overlooked, sometimes it gets so large something has to give.

And so it happened over the Forthbridge Road site and the proposed admissions policy for Belleville – something had to give and thus three ward councillors (two who are in the council’s cabinet) found themselves in committee room 123 arguing against their own council’s plans.

I won’t beat around the bush; I’m really pleased about the way last night went.

There was a packed public gallery and I think it was a great example of how democracy can work well. The Education and Children’s Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee heard first from Ian Hamilton, who was representing Forthbridge Road residents in opposing the plans. Then from the chairman of governors at Belleville who was also opposing the plans. Then from Guy Senior and myself spoke, again, opposing the plans. When the committee started formal discussions Jonathan Cook (who is a member) moved an amendment requiring the council to re-think and he too spoke in opposition to the plans.

I suppose there is an argument that if everyone is unhappy then the plans are, at least, balanced. And the chairman did remind the committee that, having heard from some of the people who oppose the policy they should also consider the people who supported it (he might also have pointed out that they need to consider the others who oppose it they didn’t hear from, like the Taybridge Road residents who were excluded from the priority zone).

But when it came to a vote Jonathan’s amendment (seconded by the Labour spokesman, Andy Gibbons) was supported 6-4. In other words, the council will have to re-think its plans. Thank-you to Cllrs Andy Gibbons and Wendy Speck, parent governors Dympna Kelly and Jon Cox and Diocesan representative John Russell. And most of all thank-you to all the parents and residents who turned up to show their opposition.

Technically the committee’s ‘decision’ is only a recommendation to the executive to act a certain way. Technically, the executive can choose to ignore that recommendation, but the practice is that the executive committee recognises that debate takes place at the committees and will follow this recommendation. I certainly hope that practice will be followed here.

It will be too late to do anything about the first lot of admissions to the Forthbridge Road site (and the objectors I spoke to recognise this; indeed, I was impressed at how practical they were when discussing how to balance the needs of Belleville parents with the desires of Forthbridge Road residents) so the first lot will be admitted based on distance from the Belleville main site. But it does mean that there will be a lot of time for discussion and drafting to get the new admission scheme right. I don’t think anyone believes everyone will be totally satisfied, but I think we all know we can do a lot better than a scheme that no-one really liked.

And I hope it goes without saying that Jonathan, Guy and I will be closely following what happens!

I’ll make no apology for reflecting on this personally, it has been a remarkably novel experience for me. I started by referring to the cognitive dissonance, that small tension caused by the difference between my belief and opinion and the broader programme to which I signed up as a Conservative candidate, then as a Conservative group councillor. It is hard to describe the feeling of freedom that comes with removing that tension, but it’s easy to see the attraction. And while I’ve no intention of becoming a serial rebel, I can see why for some people the threat of sanction (be it sacking or removal of the whip, and I’m sure there are those who think it should happen to me) is not a deterrent.
But most of all the episode has reinforced my faith in democracy.

I’d lost count of the number of times I spoke to somebody in the days leading up to the meeting for them to say, “there’s no point in objecting, the council has made up its mind.” For them it was quite clear that the council had weighed the views of Shaftesbury residents against the demands of Belleville parents (and potential parents) and decided firmly in favour of the latter. The council was obviously getting it wrong, but was an unstoppable juggernaut.

I’ve always been clear in my view that the council is not perfect, like any person or organisation it can make mistakes; what is important is that it can spot and rectify those mistakes. Last night, I was proud that the council proved it isn’t an unstoppable juggernaut, it is a mature and responsive organisation – it might not get things right first time, but it’s prepared to listen to make sure it’s gets there in the end.

The council, sadly, seems determined to plough ahead with its almost universally unpopular scheme to expand Belleville School into Shaftesbury while denying Shaftesbury children the right to attend. I say universally unpopular because it seems the latest proposals are disliked by pretty much everyone, even if for different reasons. So while I will object to the fact that nearby children are incredibly unlikely to ever get a place, Belleville governors will object because they are losing flexibility in admissions policy. And while it’s incredibly hard for someone like me to admit it – I’m a member of the council’s controlling group and on the executive – the council has got this wrong.

It’s perhaps understandable to see how the council got to this position. Lots of people want to get their children into Belleville, so those that can afford it move near the school, but many are still disappointed. The council, therefore, looked at expanding the Belleville site with a £6.72m development scheme. Unfortunately this proposal was unpopular with the parents. The consultation was extended twice and, ultimately, the idea dropped in favour of giving the Forthbridge Road site to Belleville. This consultation was not a model of good communication. The consultation focused on the area around Belleville, with only a few roads around Forthbridge Road included and no reference to the admission policy. Despite this there was a huge proportion of objections, over 450 from the 500 representations received.

Nevertheless the council ploughed on, this time consulting on the idea of priority zones to address the genuine concern about children near the Forthbridge Road site not being able to get in. Bizarrely, however, admission was still based on distance from Belleville, even when the places were at Forthbridge Road – so in practice it meant the child in Forthbridge Road was still at the back of the queue when it came to getting into that school.

Again, the response to the council’s proposal was not positive. But the council came up with a brilliant idea. Why not, they must have thought, create another priority zone a mile away from Forthbridge Road, while still basing admission on distance from the Belleville Road site. While we’re at it, why don’t we refuse to extend the current priority zone to roads a hundred yards away because they aren’t on the same “interconnected grid of streets.”

If you were deliberately trying to invent a scheme that was bad for Shaftesbury residents, it would be hard to come up with something better than the council has for this.

It’s a fundamentally flawed scheme. The council is addressing problems in their arbitrary ‘planning areas’ (the argument being there’s a problem in the planning area that contains Belleville, but cross the road into the planning area Forthbridge Road is in and all is well) but not thinking at all about basic human nature.

A parent will always want to do what’s best for their child. If they can afford it, they will move near a good school. They will not consider Wandsworth Council’s education planning areas.

So we will continue to feed the demand. We already have three priority zones. What next, who will have to suffer for zones four and five? Or six and seven? Are we to have a handful of super-schools in the borough, growing ever larger and expanding by taking over small sites here and there? Or is Shaftesbury going to be the only ward that will suffer? It’s short-sighted, and doesn’t solve the problem – in fact I’d bet it would get worse as parents move and stay near Belleville to get subsequent children in.

But my real objection is that it’s just plain wrong.

Do we really want to say to a parent living next to a school, listening to the noise from the playground, seeing the traffic dropping off and collecting children each day, that their child can’t attend because someone living a mile away had a better claim? I cannot see the justice in it. The counter-argument is that it’s just the same a living next door to a private school or a faith school. But it isn’t the same, this isn’t a private or a faith school: it’s a secular, non-selective state school, funded from our taxes.

The council’s current proposals will be discussed at the Education and Children’s Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday (it’s a public meeting, so if you want to go along it starts at 7:30pm and takes place in the Town Hall). I’m intending to go along and voice my objections, as it my ward colleague Guy Senior. Our other ward colleague, Jonathan Cook, is a committee member and will also be speaking out against the plans.

I’ll be calling for the council to re-think. Given that the plans have such little support and are so fundamentally flawed I can only hope the committee will listen.

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.

Background
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 Lycée, 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.

In an email the other day I commented that the two big pillars of the Big Society were re-branding and permission. I don’t think this is anything particularly profound (if it is, I’m probably unknowingly plagiarising something I’ve read somewhere) and have even remarked on the re-branding aspect myself.

The fact is that Big Society is just a new name, perhaps emphasis, on something that already happens all over. I first pointed to this in relation to the Battersea High Street Big Lunch – something you can analysis almost endlessly through a Big Society lens. First there were the businesses, then the various community groups who attended the event, then the people who went along and enjoyed the day. But even further you can argue that the Big Lunch itself is a Big Society project, seeking to encourage and help neighbours strengthen their communities. It’s welcome the government is looking at promoting society over itself, but society has always been able to look after itself when it needed.

But permission is a different matter entirely, and works on different levels.

The obvious one is for permission to actually do things, whether its setting up a school, running a service or organising a street party – it’s crucial that people are allowed to do this (and remarkably unhealthy that we’ve developed a society in which we often feel the state has to give that permission).

But it goes further. We need to develop a cultural permission to try new things, and I’m not so sure that’s there yet.

To take one example, in the existing Big Society ordinary people help run schools. Parents are elected as school governors, the education authority appoint some more and the governing body itself appoints members from the community. This is totally unremarkable – no-one questions whether these laypeople should have a role in running a school of (hopefully) professional staff, and have ultimate responsibility children’s education. So why is there controversy over the idea these very same people should have the right to establish their own schools?

It might be politics, those who oppose the idea tend (as far as I’ve seen) to be on the left, with unions particularly objecting to the idea. It might just be conservatism, a resistance to change and feeling of comfort with the status quo. It might be fear, what if they don’t work out or, perhaps worse, what if they do? And I occasionally worry that it’s down to a belief that only the state can fulfil certain functions without really questioning if that’s true.

And maybe there is something deeper in our national and institutional psyche that doesn’t like change and is suspicious of the new and the novel: a feeling that we do just fine, thank-you very much, there’s nothing we need to change or learn.

In fact the permission is not so much about what we are allowed to do, but what we are allowed to try. It’s the difference between being part of what’s already there, and being part of something new. While it would attract the ire of the Taxpayers Alliance we should be getting back to a stage in which improvement and innovation (which will always carry the risk of failure) should be celebrated. It has almost become cliché (through my overuse alone) that dealing with the deficit is a huge opportunity because it can drive innovation. But it can only do that if we as a society give ourselves permission.

I don’t have any pictures of attractive young girls celebrating their results. Which partly explains why The Daily Telegraph stubbornly remains better read than this blog. But congratulations to all those celebrating today, and commiserations to those who are not.

I’ll hold my own counsel on whether exams are getting easier. But today has made me realise that I am getting older.

Most people getting their results today were born in the year I picked up mine. In my day it was a trip to the school to collect a slip of paper (which would only be handed over if you returned any borrowed text-books that were out against your name) and then followed by a 12 hour binge drinking session. Although I think technically binge drinking wasn’t invented until this century.

Today, I have my house to myself – my wife and child have visiting her sister’s and staying until tomorrow. Rather than join celebrating students today I’m faced with difficult decisions. Having soul control over what goes on the TV or into the DVD player is troubling me (although it will almost definitely be something with ‘Star’ in the title, but whether it’s set at the final frontier or a galaxy far, far away is a harder choice).

What is causing me less trouble is whether I have a drink. I didn’t just think about a glass or two of wine (or maybe something gin based) but also about a fuzzy head in the morning and how it would affect my sleep. Thinking about hangover consequences is one thing, but when I’m thinking about a good night’s sleep as part of the calculation I’m clearly over the hill.

I hope such calculations do not trouble any of today’s students for a few years yet.

I’m probably a creep, but I rather like the videos that have been created for the Wandsworth Conservative council campaign. The latest to be featured is on education.

Wandsworth has a lot to be proud of, especially when one considers the challenges faced by inner city schools, but there’s even more to be proud of in the future, with the development of free schools.

Battersea's next new school - but where would Labour cut to fund it?

Yesterday, I commented that the ‘free schools’ idea had cross party support. I was wrong and shouldn’t have said that.

The Conservatives, locally and nationally support the concept of free schools. Indeed, there have been a number of meetings between the local and national Conservative frontbenchers and the local campaign to set up a school on the Bolingbroke site. It may well be one of the pioneer schools under a Conservative government.

Unfortunately Labour have not been quite so warm to the idea. While Martin Linton has been trying to talk up what Labour will do he hasn’t been talking to Labour Secretary of State for Education, Ed Balls.

Ed Balls is perfectly willing to support the idea, but his solution? Slash planned investment in other schools.

In essence Balls is saying that he supports the idea, but that he wants us to cut funding already earmarked for seventeen other schools and educational facilities in the borough. Perhaps he or Martin Linton could indicate which schools they would propose to chop?