Will the Free School undermine local schools?
There is only so much money for secondary education in Kent. By building another school, will we not further dilute the pot – and the result will be a deterioration in facilities and standards at Towers, the North etc.? The government are already talking about private funding for free schools – an indication that they themselves deem the public purse insufficient (and may like to transform them into private schools in the long term.)
Are free schools suited to Kent secondary education?
Parents whose children pass the 11+ are likely to continue to send their children to grammar school. Parents whose children fail the 11+ will naturally be concerned that their children are going to be lumped in with the most disruptive element in the county. Wherever you consider siting a free secondary school in Kent therefore, there is likely to be considerable demand from these anxious parents.
Given this demand, will the school really keep to its stated 600 pupil maximum?
The school most similar in character and intake to the prospective free school is Archbishops’ in Canterbury. This is heavily over-subscribed and has been enlarged since it was first built so that it now accommodates 850 pupils. Wye Free School will represent a real choice in that it will be a rural and smaller secondary school compared with others in the area. Pressure therefore to increase intake from 600 pupils could be overwhelming. (If a free school were to go ahead in Wye, I feel that the village should seek some sort of guarantee (beyond a verbal say-so) that the school will not be expanded.)
Is Wye the best place for a Free School?
There are four parts to this answer:
1/ Kent Education Authority have written a letter saying that Wye Free School is ‘wrong time, wrong place’, saying that it was important to place schools where the intake actually lives. It is, I now realise, not unexpected that an education authority might object to a free school because, a government crowd-pleasing initiative, it potentially disrupts their careful long-term planning. Possibly it could be argued that their ‘wrong place’ argument be discounted because their analytical approach is likely to provide for very similar secondary schools in predominantly urban locations – which doesn’t represent ‘choice’ at all.
2/ The presence of the free school will undoubtedly put pressure on the village’s roads and level crossing as the vast majority of the children are likely to come from outside Wye. To my knowledge there is still no credible travel plan which explains how they are going to get here. This is a major stumbling block for me. Surely an ideal is to have children walk to school rather than have to face tiresome bus journeys at the beginning and end of the day?
3/ Could the free school lead to further development? I have written in this blog about how we could build a few more houses in order to fill the primary school with children from Wye (as opposed to Kennington and Willesborough). Could it be that someone else could be writing in twenty years time talking of the need to build a few more houses in order to fill the Free School with children from Wye (rather than have them bussed in from Ashford)?
4/ The character of the village. There are some who may say that a secondary school sited so close to the village centre is likely to have an adverse effect on the village, and that Wye, with its smart shops and high-speed links to Canterbury, London and the Continent, would do well to focus on tourism rather than education. At the current time, (and after much public consultation I’m assured) the village’s preference is that the old buildings should remain in education. But maybe we should revisit this? Might not the Edwardian college buildings make a fine hotel which would attract travellers (many of them train travellers and therefore not a burden on the level-crossing) who would spend money in the village?
If a free school is built, where exactly should it be sited?
The recent village questionnaire seems to answer this one. Most people who answered the village questionnaire would like it to be centred on the Edwardian buildings rather than the Kempe Centre with associated new build.
Why wasn’t there a Yes-No question in the village questionnaire?
Having spoken to some of those involved, I am prepared to believe that this may have been a mistake. Free schools are, however, potentially hugely divisive and there will be many who are relieved not to see a 50-50 split on a yes-no question. Where would that leave us after all?
Even if the village voted ‘no’ in such a questionnaire, could the Free School go ahead anyway?
The experience of the Beccles Free School and the associated public consultation would seem to suggest that this is possible. Even the local MP was against it but the project went ahead regardless.
So where does that leave me?
I voted strongly against the free school on both sites – because of concerns about the process and the travel plan. I now acknowledge that, if a free school is built, the village would prefer it to be sited in the Edwardian buildings. But I’m not much further forward on whether a free school should actually be sited here at all. But then, as per the previous question, it probably doesn’t matter what I think.