Wednesday, 20 June 2012

If you care about Education in Barnet join us at Hendon Town Hall tonight

If you care about your childrens education in Barnet, you really should come along to Hendon Town Hall tonight. The cabinet of Barnet Council are debating a "new process" for opening local schools. The scheme is touted to be  a new local process. If you read what it actually entails it is nothing of the sort. Here is the description of the process, from the Barnet Council document describing it
9.1 As of 1 February 2012 Schedule 11 of the Education Act 2011 came into force followed by non-statutory guidance, published on 29 May 2012, on establishing a new school. Where a Local Authority proposes that a new school is needed, the Local Authority must first invite proposals for the establishment of an Academy or free school. The Local Authorities should be clear about the type of academy/Free School they wish to see established and should take steps to ensure that the Department for Education and groups or organisations that might be interested in establishing the new school are aware of the opportunity.   
9.2 Local Authorities should assess the proposals they receive and may state a preference, which the Secretary of State will take into consideration when deciding whether or not to enter into a Funding Agreement with any of the proposers. 
9.3 The Council has a statutory duty to ensure that sufficient schools for providing primary and secondary education are available in the area. As such, it may prove necessary to commission new schools to meet additional demand, for example from births, migration or new housing development.   
Proposed local process 
9.4 Barnet has a number of regeneration and development schemes that will require new educational provision over the coming years, including Mill Hill East, Brent Cross Cricklewood and Colindale. Proposed local process  
9.5 In line with non statutory guidance, it is proposed to operate a local process for commissioning new schools as follows.   

9.6 For each new school commissioned by the Council, a report to Cabinet Resources committee will set out: i) the requirements in relation to the size and type of school;
ii) the factors that will be taken into account when choosing a preferred

9.7 The type of educational provision required will differ, for example, depending on whether a new school is needed to meet the needs of existing residents or new residents. However, the requirements are likely to include the size and type of school, proposed opening date, and need for community facilities. The equirements will be informed by Area Action Plans and other strategic documents as appropriate.  
9.8 Some common factors to be considered are likely to include: ability to deliver the stated requirements specifically in relation to size and type of school; strength of educational vision; track record of success; inclusive practices and provision for pupils with differing abilities; commitment to community provision; and educational and financial capability.   
9.9 Following approval, expressions of interest will be sought and proposers will be given a minimum of six weeks to respond.   
9.10 A stakeholder group will be convened by the Children’s Trust Board to consider responses and, together with the Cabinet Member for Education, Children and Families, make a recommendation on the preferred proposal to Cabinet Resources Committee. The preferred proposal would then be put forward to the Department for Education for final approval. 

What struck me as I read through this document was a) the lack of any meaningful detail and b) the lack of any proposals to engage with local residents in the development of such schools. Have Barnet Council learned nothing from the Mill Hill Etz Chaim fiasco, where the opening of a new Free School building is still being held up by a legal challenge from local residents, a year after the work was scheduled to start.

The lessons of Etz Chaim are easy to learn

1) Involve the local community in decisions
2) Conduct your business in an open and transparent manner
3) Don't tell porkies to local residents

Sadly the new process flies in the face of these lessons, if anything making the process even more opaque. Residents will get a  mere six weeks to register their concerns. There is no definition of what "stakeholder group" is, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it wouldn't include something like the Mill Hill Action Group, which collected thousands of petitioners signatures.

When I read the recent Etz Chaim planning papers, I was astounded to see that Barnet Council did not consider the elderly residents of Marshall Homes to be "local residents" even though they live around the corner and the Garden Centre was their nearest shop. In Barnet, we have smoke and mirrors consultation. I did not sign the petition to keep the Garden Centre, but if I had I would not have been considered a "local resident" even though we go past it every day when walking the dog.

The "minimum six weeks" period is instructive. In Barnet, all contentious decisions are always announced at the start of the summer holidays, when opposition is hard to organise. Brian Coleman did this trick with the abolition of Pay and Display. A minimum of three months would be appropriate, as people have to do research, get legal advice and make their neighbours aware.

Anyone who has followed the Etz Chaim fiasco, whether a supporter or opponent of the school should think that there are lessons to be learned. Is there no one in Barnet Council who has the sense to convene a meeting with the various parties involved to improve the process.

If you have the time, I'd advise you to come down and see how the cabinet of Barnet Council make such important decisions. You may be in for a shock. The meeting is at Hendon Town Hall and starts at 7pm.

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