Skip to main content

Durham Free School

Volume 591: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Gavin Barwell.)

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to hold this debate, which, in my opinion, is much needed, given local anxiety about the situation of Durham free school and the strong interest in its future.

I begin by expressing great sympathy for the parents and children facing this most unfortunate set of circumstances, but I called the debate to put in the public domain factual information about why the school is facing an announcement by the Secretary of State of her intention to withdraw its funding. Members will know that I have had concerns about the free school for some time, partly because it has been so difficult to get accurate information about it and its funding. However, even I was surprised by the response from the Secretary of State to my question last Monday. I thank her and the Minister for the honesty and decisiveness of her response.

This report is probably the worst I have ever seen during my years in education. I have been inundated by e-mails from parents who still think it is a great school, that there have been inappropriate conversations with children and that there is some sort of political agenda, yet a Conservative Secretary of State has taken the decision to close a school that is part of the Government’s flagship policy. Does my hon. Friend think that the inspectors could get it so badly wrong in such circumstances?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. As I will say later, the decision has been made not just on the basis of the Ofsted inspection, but in the light of other information.

To date, 18 parents have written to me about the school, and an additional 25 with no direct knowledge of the school have also written about the proposed closure, requesting that the decision be reversed. Nearly all these letters concentrate on challenging very selective aspects of the Ofsted report. A handful of parents have also written to say that the school should be closed in the light of the Ofsted report and to urge that their voices be heard too.

Information I have obtained from the Education Funding Agency and elsewhere indicates that a thorough analysis and evaluation of the school has taken place. As I suspect most people now know, the Department was alerted to problems at the free school by a whistleblower, which prompted the inspections due to take place early in 2015 to be brought forward to November 2014. The EFA inspection was comprehensive and included representatives from the EFA, the office of the schools commissioner, the Department and the due diligence unit, as well as the free schools section.

The inspection findings underpinned the financial notice to improve that the school received in December, with a time scale for it to reply by 19 December 2014. The notice chronicled failure not only in financial management, but in other aspects of governance, and prompted a request from the schools commissioner to the Secretary of State for an Ofsted inspection. This, too, was carried out in November 2014. The Ofsted report chronicled failure at every level and showed the school to be inadequate in every category, including in leadership and management; behaviour and safety of pupils; and quality of teaching and pupil achievement. It found that students’ achievement was weak; that leaders, including governors, did not have high enough expectations; that governors placed too much emphasis on religious credentials when recruiting staff; that teaching was inadequate over time; that teachers’ assessment of student work was inaccurate; that the behaviour of some students led to unsafe situations; that leaders, including governors, had inaccurate views of the quality of teaching and students’ achievements; and that targets for achievement were set too low. That is in great contrast to what I think the parents believed the school would deliver. In 2012, the head teacher said that it would be a

“unique secondary school providing a high quality of education in a close-knit”

scaring—[Interruption]—or rather, a close-knit “caring school environment.” Indeed, it appears to have gone from being caring to scaring for some of those young people.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) has said, it is unusual for a school to receive such a negative report. To put that in context, as of 31 October 2014, the proportion of all schools judged good or outstanding by Ofsted at the most recent inspection had reached 81%. That compares with 70% for free schools. Even so, it is highly unusual to get a school rated as inadequate across all its categories. The report would be worrying for any school and community, but, coupled with the detailed report from the Education Funding Agency, it is obvious why the Secretary of State would consider issuing a notice to close the school. It appears to be based not on any one aspect of the school’s weakness, but on the combined picture of mismanagement and poor quality education observed and inspected thoroughly by the EFA, the Department and Ofsted. I am aware of no evidence to date that these inspections were not in any way suitably robust or conducted in a way that they should not have been.

Tomorrow the chief executive of Ofsted is due to appear before the Select Committee on Education. Parents will want us to hold him to account for the decisions made at Durham and in Sunderland, where just last week Grindon Hall free school was also put into special measures. Does my hon. Friend think there are any particular challenges we should be laying at his door tomorrow?

It is important that the chief executive of Ofsted establishes very clearly that the inspections were carried out in a suitable way and following the correct guidance, and therefore that there should be public confidence in their outcomes, because I know that a number of colleagues have received letters from a variety of people calling into question the veracity of the Ofsted inspection.

As my hon. Friend will know, Grindon Hall Christian school is in my constituency. Following on from the intervention by our hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), I would like to ask her, on behalf of the hundreds of parents who have written to me, whether she agrees that Ofsted has questions to answer about the inspection, to ensure that the public can have confidence in Ofsted, which is something that the parents who have written to me do not have.

It is important that we maintain confidence in Ofsted, which I hope will get—as I am sure it will—challenging questions from the Select Committee tomorrow. Again, I hope that Ofsted is able robustly to defend the way in which it carried out these inspections.

Clearly a number of parents are very upset and want the school to stay open. I genuinely sympathise with them, but given the inadequate rating, I am not clear on what grounds it can do so.

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for her courtesy in giving way again. The chairman of the governors has written to a number of us, including me, to say that they feel that the Ofsted report was grossly unfair. One of the things Ofsted said in that report was that

“RE is a narrow study of the Bible,”

when in fact it took up only 5% of the time. The school feels—along with many parents, as she obviously understands—that it has been seriously badly treated by Ofsted, which has asked inappropriate questions of young people. I hope that she and the Committee will be able to hold Ofsted to account tomorrow.

That is a very interesting intervention given that I started the debate by asking for information about the decision to be in the public domain. I understand that the decision taken by the Secretary of State was based not only on the Ofsted report, but on the detailed assessment carried out late last year by the Education Funding Agency and representatives from the Department for Education and the free school unit. I know that the school is concerned about aspects of the Ofsted inspection, but there are many more aspects of that inspection that need to be taken into consideration. Given the inadequate rating, I am not clear on what grounds the school can challenge, but I understand that it has until next Tuesday to set out its case.

In addition to being clear about the extensive nature of the information on which the decision to remove the school’s funding was based, I want to see what lessons can be learned from this sorry saga, whether or not the school remains open. First, I am totally unclear about why this school was given approval to start up in the first place in a city that has good quality schools and surplus places. Community acceptance of the free school was not helped by the fact that this new school of 30 pupils was expected to be set up on the site of a school that had just closed down because it was not considered to be financially viable with 400 pupils. Numbers at the free school remained low, even though as soon as it was established the local authority was obliged to inform parents in the area that it was their nearest school, and that if they wanted free school transport they would have to send their children to that school—they did not have a choice.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour for giving way. Does she agree that another scandalous aspect is that millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been sunk into a school in an area, as she rightly says, of surplus places, where other local schools, such as the excellent St Leonard’s, which serves both her and my constituency, are crying out for resources? Is it not a scandal that just last Saturday this school was spending taxpayers’ money on a half-page advert in The Northern Echo? Is that a good use of public money?

My hon. Friend reiterates a point that I have made many times. I have been greatly concerned about the amount of money the school has received, how it has been spent and the impact of that on other schools in the community.

Secondly, on lessons learned, how much money has the school received so far and has any analysis been made of how that money could have been better spent to assist local schools, especially as they had to accommodate the 400 children from the closed school with no additional resources? Why did the Department think it was better to support a free school for the few rather than invest in the planned academy, which would have supported many more children?

One of the first things the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), did on the election of the current Government was to cancel the academy for Durham city that was very much needed locally and that was supposed to raise standards for the school that closed. This is particularly concerning in the light of findings by the National Audit Office that

“the primary factor in decision making has been opening schools at pace, rather than maximising value for money”.

Surely it was wrong to put ideology before evidence-based education policy.

The shadow Secretary of State picked up on that in highlighting the deficiencies now emerging from the Swedish system, which saw a radical expansion of free schools, accounting for a quarter of all pupils by 2013. This seems to have come at a great cost for those pupils, as Sweden saw a massive drop in standards during this period. In 2003, Sweden was ranked 17th in the global league table for mathematics; now it is ranked 38th. I hope that the Department is keeping a good check on what is happening to overall standards for schools such as Durham free school.

I regret the accusation that some of us are turning this into a political issue. That is not the case. I want a rational debate about the school’s future. When parents approached me in 2011-12 for support to set up the free school, I did what I think was the right thing and pointed them to the Department so that they could get the information and support they needed. I do not know whether that happened in practice. What I do know is that when things go wrong, we need decisive action. I know that the local authority is trying to work with the school and with parents by offering alternative places. It is interesting that we always expect local authorities to step in and sort out problems; perhaps we should consider giving them a much bigger role in the management of all schools.

The main thing that I wanted to do this evening was put my concerns on record. I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say about how they will be addressed, but I hope that, before he speaks, I can crave the indulgence of the House and allow my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) a few minutes in which to comment on the issue from the point of view of the Education Committee.

I shall speak very briefly. My main purpose is to thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for the decisive and swift action that they have taken in this case.

I have been raising issues relating to Durham free school with the Department for Education, and with its former Secretary of State, for several years, both in the Education Committee and in the Chamber. I find it disappointing that the former Secretary of State chose not to take action, and that, until very recently, he was praising a school which—let us not forget—has failed and has been found to be inadequate in every respect, including safeguarding. That is why I am so grateful for the swift action that has—finally—been taken.

I consistently raised the financial and educational questions that surrounded the opening of a free school in a city where there was already a sufficiency of both surplus places and good and outstanding schools. I said many times, “You cannot spit in Durham city without hitting an outstanding school.” There were surplus places in that city, and I could not understand the reasoning behind the setting up of another school. I also consistently raised the fact that the school had never been more than half full in years 7 and 8, that the cost per pupil was therefore in excess of £80,000, and that applications to Durham county council for places in other schools from the parents of existing pupils had been regular and even excessive since the day on which the free school had opened in September 2013.

However, my real concerns—I raised them with the Secretary of State in, I think, November, which is why I think that progress has been swift—related to staffing at the school. There are good teachers there who will find it difficult to secure alternative employment, and I am sorry for that. However, as a former senior education officer in the north-east, I was aware that there were very high levels of teachers working at Durham free school that I knew had already undergone competency procedures with other local authorities. A head teacher in the region told me that the school had become a haven for every crap teacher in the north-east. I am sorry if that is unparliamentary language, but that was what he said.

I am concerned about the £4 million that the school has cost in 15 months. I am concerned about the negative impact that the school has had not only on its own intake, but on all the other schools in the City of Durham. I remind Members that it was judged to be inadequate in every respect. Those children have lost 15 months of their education that they will never get back, and for that reason I am extremely grateful for the actions that the Minister has taken. This has gone on for too long, and I am pleased that he has pulled the funding agreement to ensure that it goes on no longer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on securing this important debate. I know that, as a Member of Parliament and as a governor at Durham Johnston school, she is a passionate advocate for education in her constituency, and I also know that she has been concerned about Durham free school for some time.

We all agree that every parent should be able to choose a good local school for their child, and we are committed to giving parents a genuine choice between high-quality schools. Pupils and parents are let down when local schools are not of the highest quality, and we must act quickly and decisively when schools fail. That is precisely what we have done in the case of Durham free school.

There are currently 255 open free schools. Of those that have been inspected, more than two thirds have been rated good or outstanding and nearly a quarter have been rated outstanding, just three years after the first free school opened its doors to pupils. More than 100 free schools are in the pre-opening phase, and are due to open in 2015 and beyond. Once full, all open and approved free schools will provide 200,000 pupil places. Free schools have introduced new ideas and approaches to the school system. Schools such as Dixons Trinity academy in Bradford, Harris primary free school, Peckham, and Perry Beeches in Birmingham have been ranked outstanding by Ofsted less than two years after opening. They also give parents and local people a say in the type of education they want for their children, and they are helping to raise academic standards. Free schools also bring diversity into the system. Charities, universities, businesses, and teachers and parents have all opened free schools, and they are having a positive impact on the educational landscape.

The Minister mentions choice. In Durham there is choice. There is the very good St Leonard’s Catholic school, there is a choice of very good secondary schools, and a good proposal was put forward for an academy backed by the local FE college. This Government cancelled that. We should have added to the choice, instead of taking the ideological step of introducing this free school, which was not needed in the area.

The hon. Gentleman says that, but the local community in Bowburn says differently, and that is why it got together and formed a committee to open the free school.

Prior to opening, all free schools undergo a rigorous assessment and Durham free school was no exception, but the real test of a school’s effectiveness comes when the school is open. The leadership and governance of the school must be strong. The standard of education must be high and sustainable to realise the promises made as the school prepared to open. A key strength of the free schools programme is that we can act swiftly and decisively where we find schools that are not performing well. We closed Discovery new school within six months of an Ofsted monitoring inspection showing that insufficient progress was being made. Since then we have reviewed our funding agreements with proposers, improving our ability to act without delay.

The Government have a zero-tolerance approach to under-performance in our schools, which is why the Secretary of State took the decision last week to issue a notice of her intention to terminate Durham free school’s funding agreement just three months after receiving notification of the initial concerns.

I welcome that decisive action, but Durham free school was receiving its bursary services from Grindon Hall Christian school, which itself has just been found to be in special measures. What measures will the Minister take to make sure all these free schools and academies—and everything else, for that matter—have appropriate financial systems and support and that we do not have one poor school trying to provide services to another?

We want collaboration between schools as part of a school-led autonomous system, but we now have very strong financial controls through the Education Funding Agency, and they are stronger in academies than any maintained school, with annual reports that are audited and very detailed academy financial handbooks that academies have to adhere to.

Durham free school is a mixed 11-19 secondary school with a Christian ethos. It has an overall capacity of 630. It opened in September 2013 with 31 pupils. It currently has 92 year 7 and 8 pupils on roll, out of 120 available places.

What assessment was made before the school was opened of its ability to meet the numbers that would be required to make it a good and stable school going forward? It has consistently failed to attract the numbers of students that would be necessary, so we have had a situation of, first, 30 children in one year and then the combined two years of 90 children in a school that was built to cater for 700 or 800 students.

It is a common feature of free schools that they do not often fill their places in the first year, but they generally increase their numbers in their second and third years. That is what we expected to happen with this school, but of course it did not happen because of the problems identified by the Ofsted report.

The vision of Durham free school came from a community who wanted a local secondary school for their children in the Bowburn area, south-east of Durham. Closures of schools in the south and south-east of Durham had left people concerned about the distances that their children were required to travel to school.

Before they are allowed to open, free school proposers receive a significant period of support and challenge from departmental officials. As with all free schools, the initial Durham free school proposal was assessed against rigorous published criteria, including a compelling vision and ethos, a detailed education plan, strong governance arrangements, robust evidence of demand, and clear financial plans. The proposers then enter a pre-opening period where groups such as the proposers of Durham free school are supported by officials and education advisers as they develop their governance and education plans, recruit pupils, consult the local community and work towards signing a funding agreement with the Department.

We make it clear that we expect to see a strong governing body to ensure that the governors have both the skills and the experience to deliver high academic standards. At the point of opening, the Durham free school governing body consisted of an existing head teacher, a retired head teacher and a number of highly qualified professionals. A strong and effective governing body is a crucial element in the success of any educational institution. In this case, we were satisfied that the governance structure had the capability to deliver an outstanding education to its pupils.

The school had 31 pupils for 60 places at opening, as the hon. Lady said. That is undoubtedly below the level we would have wished for, but new schools can take time to establish their reputation and build up their roll. The school opened on a temporary site in Gilesgate—just spitting distance from where I lived during my three years at Durham university—because of the difficulties in finding a permanent site in the trust’s preferred location.

The trust was able to demonstrate that the school could be viable in the first year of opening due to the way in which school funding is allocated in Durham. It is not uncommon for free schools to increase pupil recruitment significantly during the first year of opening and whilst in a temporary site. Our experience of the free schools programme is that schools often recruit far better in year 2, which was the case at both Rimon Jewish school and Harpenden free school, where recruitment in year 2 was almost 30% more than in year 1.

The proposer group also produced a detailed education plan which demonstrated a clear and coherent vision, focusing not only on academic success but on transforming the local area and increasing the aspirations of all its pupils. At the time of opening, Ministers agreed that the educational plan, together with a secured temporary site and the intention of finding a permanent site in Bowburn, made a strong case to proceed to opening the school.

The school opened in September 2013, and early indications from the Department’s education adviser were that it had made a positive start in delivering the education plan and was making good use of other local schools. Disappointingly, that positive start was not sustained. The recent Ofsted report clearly states that pupil aspiration is low and is not challenged by the school leadership. It shows that teaching is inadequate and consequently that pupil achievement is weak. The school has a number of other significant issues, which is why the Secretary of State took the difficult decision to issue the trust with a notice of our intention to terminate the funding agreement. I would like to address some of those issues today.

The school’s temporary location on the site of the former Gilesgate school in Durham was not the preferred location. Extensive site searches have been undertaken in the trust’s area of choice in Bowburn, which, as the hon. Lady will know, is largely made up of agricultural and residential land. We have already seen that many free schools can offer high quality education in sites that were not their original choice, and that that has not affected the quality of education, so we do not accept that as a reason for the poor judgments given in the Ofsted report.

The school has since received per-pupil funding at the same rate as all other state-funded schools in the local authority and, as a new school, received an additional £196,000 to defray the additional set-up costs and overheads while pupil numbers were growing. The Department spent £303,000 in capital funding, a large proportion of which was spent on construction, furniture, fittings, other equipment and ICT.

It has been extraordinarily difficult to get information about the total funding the school has obtained over the two years of its existence. How can I easily get that information?

I am very happy to supply the hon. Lady with that information. Revenue and capital, in additional to the per-pupil funding, amounts to about £840,000, but I will write to her with the precise figure.

The Department received a number of worrying allegations about Durham free school’s governance in October 2014, 13 months after it opened. We acted swiftly to investigate the claims. The Education Funding Agency undertook an urgent review in November, which identified serious breaches of the academies financial handbook. Those included concerns about the governing body, the completion of Disclosure and Barring Service checks, and the robustness of the school’s financial management. As a consequence, the school was issued with a financial notice to improve on 24 November, and the Secretary of State asked Ofsted to conduct a no-notice section 5 inspection, which took place in November.

We acted swiftly, and the hon. Lady will know that we take action whenever we see underperformance in our schools system.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.