“You pay, we say”

How galling is it that a government which came in with tales of woe and plans to cut everything in sight because of the apparently dire state of the nation’s finances, has wasted so much on Michael Gove’s pet academies and ‘free’ schools projects? It is one thing to argue about whether they are effective or not (they’re not) but even if they achieved what is claimed for them, they would still be incredibly poor value for money.

Take the Nottingham Free School. This school, as regular readers will know, has been in the pipeline for well over a year and finally, about a month ago, announced that it will open this coming September  in part of an old factory building known as the Courtaulds building and which, for most of us locally, is familiar as the home of a factory shop. So far, so inexpensive, you would think. After all, they’ve shelled out for nothing so far, more than the cost of advertising and setting up a website: a few leaflets, the cost of hiring premises for open meetings in the autumn etc.

Yet, as always, someone (not me) has been burrowing away in documents and websites, statements of accounts and so forth and has found that the parent organisation, the Torch Academy Gateway Trust, and Toot Hill Comprehensive, the academy at the heart of this group, has received £180000 up to the end of January this year, that is, before any work has been done on the Courtaulds building since it hadn’t been announced then. (Maybe there had been a ‘feasibility’ study and an architect’s report to pay for, who knows.)

For greater clarification: Torch received £90000 on 17 September last year from the DfE in the expense area ‘free school group’; Toot Hill school received another £90000 on 28 January this year, again in the expense area ‘free school group’. Toot Hill is the  main school in the Torch Trust and on the NFS website, Toot Hill and its ‘outstanding’ OFSTED rating is heavily used as a way of suggesting the NFS will be excellent. The CEO of Torch has been quoted in the local press as confirming that the NFS and Trent Bridge Free School bid to the DfE, as it was at that stage (October 2012), was financially supported by the New Schools Network, although he didn’t say by how much at that stage. The New Schools Network, quaintly described as a ‘charity’ in the Nottingham Post article, is, of course, a government quango, supported by grants from government (that is, your money and mine) explicitly to support any group wishing to set up a ‘free’ school.

We don’t know whether, in the light of the announcement of the school’s location and the obvious need for refurb and equipment, further money will be forthcoming. We don’t know how many pupils they will start with – estimates vary between 70 and 90, which was the NFS stated aim (originally 120). Normally a school would not receive its per capita funding until the following year but for any new school, ‘pump priming’ is obviously needed. How much, no one at this stage knows but, you can be sure, someone will be doing their best to find out. What is clear is that, so far, without teaching one single lesson. NFS has cost us at least £18000, or, on the NFS’s own figures, £2000 per pupil.

And more on the Nottingham Free School website

I’ve kept looking at this site over recent months and was sure I had seen them describe the non-existent school as “outstanding” but couldn’t find that word used when I looked recently. It turns out I was right and someone had the bright idea (wish I’d thought of it) of challenging this with the Advertising Standards Authority – and won! Which is why the NFS site talks about aiming to provide an excellent education (excellent kind of  means the same as outstanding but doesn’t carry the implication that it’s a grade awarded by OFSTED).

All this is pretty galling because, back in the autumn, the Hands Off Our Schools campaign group distributed a leaflet about the NFS and received a snotty letter from the Torch Academy Gateway Trust, bandying about terms like ‘malicious falsehood’ and quoting obscure sub-clauses of the ASA code. It was, transparently, an attempt to frighten off the campaigners but, with no funding and no tame lawyer to advise them, HOOS backed off. They didn’t do all the things ‘required’ by Torch such as withdrawal, apology etc – they just ignored the threats and, sure enough, none of the threatened consequences ensued. No one  should be remotely surprised that Torch, it would appear, were ‘guilty’ of what they accused HOOS of.

HOOS and I have already made clear that we’re not accusing Torch of being misleading in using a PhotoShopped picture of the building which they will partially occupy in September, or by dressing ‘child models’ in NFS uniforms and photographing them in nice but anonymous  surroundings which can’t be NFS  but,  it might be worth checking what the ASA think.