Hackney MP joins row over free school

Meg Hillier, MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch

Meg Hillier MP: The free schools scheme "is a very big experiment that could take money away from Hackney children."

Vital funds could be drained away from Hackney primaries if a controversial new free school gets the go ahead, an MP has warned.

In March campaigners eager to create the borough’s first state funded, privately run primary school said they wanted to seize the chance to boost government investment in education in the borough.

However, Meg Hillier, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, warned the proposals could lead to vital money being diverted from existing educational institutions.

Under the free schools scheme, which was announced last year by education secretary Michael Gove, parents, teachers, charities and businesses can propose to run their own schools.

Though funded by the government, they are given the freedom to operate outside of traditional local authority control.

Ms Hillier said she had concerns about the quality and accountability of free schools, and urged the government to plough funds into existing educational institutions.

She said: “It [the free schools scheme] is a very big experiment that could take money away from Hackney children. The schools are on the cusp of improvement, so wouldn’t the money be better spent on improving the existing school system rather than being siphoned off? There are lots of lovely schools in the area already being built or rebuilt, so why send a child to a refurbished little building? A warehouse turned into a school may not have proper playgrounds or catering facilities.”

She added: “It’s a long way all the way to Whitehall for a parent to take their concerns. There’s still a governing body of sorts at a free school, but who do you appeal to if they don’t satisfy you?”

Campaign group Free School for Hackney (FSH) argue there is a need to cater for higher future demand for school places in the borough.

Earlier this year Alan Arslan, head of the FSH steering committee, told the Citizen: “We didn’t choose this scenario, the government did, but if we want investment in education in Hackney, let’s have free schools.”
Mr Arslan claimed the FSH campaign had strong backing in the local community and that free schools were less bureaucratic than those controlled by councils.

He said: “Free schools are funded directly from Whitehall, with local councils taken out of the chain and the establishment of governing bodies put into the hands of the individual school. A recent report by the Department for Education suggests that when schools commit to improving their efficiency, it also has a positive impact on their pupils’ performance. What matters isn’t the amount of money spent per pupil, but how that money is spent. All schools, whether local authority or free schools, should be focusing on providing value for money. Both the previous and current governments have developed academies and free schools because they aren’t convinced that money being spent on existing schools is improving the education and life chances of pupils.”

Finding a suitable home for the proposed school is the most challenging task facing the campaigners, according to Mr Arslan, who is considering possible sites in Dalston, Clapton and Homerton.

Both free schools and state schools are awarded a budget based on how many pupils they have. Some education experts have claimed this could create competition for pupils, providing an incentive for schools to raise standards – but Ms Hillier said this could also lead to viability problems.

She said: “Say a free school becomes less popular, or it has a problem – because all schools have problems at one point or another – and suddenly the number of pupils drops, the school will no longer be viable. The local authority would have to step in and pick up the pieces. Meanwhile, the budgets for state schools are tiny and a small change can have a big impact upon them too. Imagine seven tiny little primary schools – what would that do to existing schools in the area?”

Ms Hillier also drew a distinction between the free school programme and the Labour government’s academy scheme, saying: “When academies were unveiled, there was plenty of money available and the mayor worked hard to make sure they were tailored to specific needs. We have seen fantastic strides in education at Mossbourne, Petchey and Hackney Free and Parochial.”


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