Katharine Birbalsingh, the teacher ousted from her job after speaking at last year's Conservative Party Conference, is to open a free school in Tooting next year. The Wandsworth Guardian reports that there will be an extended school day and that it will teach not only Latin but Mandarin.
This is good news - it is especially good news for those parents of Tooting who can't afford school fees. But it is disappointing for the parents of Kennington. There was a prospect of the free school opening at redundant Lillian Bayliss School site in Lollard Street. But Labour-run Lambeth Council managed to scupper this – despite the desperate need for a school they sold the building to property developers to turn into a block of flats. So Katherine's school has had to refugee to Wandsworth. A few Lambeth parents might get their children in but I suspect the school will be heavily oversubscribed with preference given to those who lived nearest.
Yet it is in areas such as Lambeth that most need free schools. The Labour councillors and bureaucrats will be celebrating that they have seen off the threat of choice to their empire. They will be able to maintain their grip – preventing good schools opening as well as forcing out successful heads.
Toby Young, in his excellent new e-book How to Set Up a Free School, that councils still have the power to sabotage the movement he has pioneered.
In the Introduction I said how relieved my group was when the local authority veto was removed. That relief turned out to be short lived. In the course of setting up the West London Free School we discovered that a hostile council still has the power to obstruct a proposer group – one of the reasons we switched operations from Ealing to Hammersmith and Fulham. Unless the site you’ve got your eye on is already being used as a school of the same size and type as the one you’re trying to set up, you’re almost certainly going to have to get planning permission before you can open a school on that
Even if the building already has D1 consent – health centre, museum, library, place of worship – you’ll still need permission if you propose to change it in any way. And if the local authority is opposed to free schools, you’re unlikely get it.
At one point it looked as though the government was going to liberalize the planning rules, making it possible for free schools to open in shops and offices without having to obtain ‘change of use’ consent. However, when it consulted local authorities about these proposals, the government ran into a wall of opposition.
In response, the changes were watered down. Free-school proposers still have to get planning permission, the only concession being that councils are now supposed to make a ‘presumption’ in their favour. Disappointed petitioners can appeal to the DCLG and ask the Secretary of State to overturn the decision, but that’s a laborious process and, in the interim, the site could be sold to someone else.
There are other advantages to having a sympathetic local authority. For one thing, it might be willing to sell you a site. Some proposer groups are lucky enough to have a relationship with a rich philanthropist who has agreed to give them a site, but the majority will be expecting the DfE to purchase a site on their behalf. Now, in theory it shouldn’t matter whether the site in question is publicly or privately owned. The DfE’s sole consideration should be getting the best possible deal for the taxpayer.
But the reality is that the DfE will be more willing to buy the site if it’s owned by the council rather than by a commercial property company. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that public servants, whether politicians or bureaucrats, are more comfortable giving large sums of money to public bodies than private ones. It’s keeping it in the family.
These planning rules must be revised if the revolution in school choice is to break through into places like Lambeth. Also that where there is a shortage of school places there should be a presumption that an empty school building should be offered as a free school site before it can be used for another purpose.