Community - Parents take the lead with plans for independent school

1st November 2013 at 00:00
Non-profit social enterprise could open on site of shut primary

A unique community-run independent school, which would hand more direct control to parents than any other school in Scotland, is being planned for the site of a rural primary that was controversially closed in 2010.

The proposed nursery and primary school in East Ayrshire, on the former Crossroads Primary's grounds, would be run as a non-profit social enterprise, with philosophy and agriculture central to a timetable designed to reflect the demands of growing up in the countryside.

The Crossroads Development Trust has been set up to drive several community projects, potentially including a farm shop, wind turbines, conference rooms, a cafe and allotments.

A feasibility study, funded by a #163;10,000 National Lottery grant, showed that 77 per cent of local respondents believed education should be among the projects developed on the Crossroads Primary site.

Plans were formally unveiled to residents at a meeting last week. Another milestone is scheduled for next spring with the opening of an "after-school learning unit" in a converted farm building, focusing on life skills - such as basic mechanics and cycle maintenance - outdoor education and rural life, as well as French, philosophy, art and orienteering.

The next step will be to extend the unit's work to adult education, with the fully fledged school to follow.

A proposal document states that, in a time of public-sector cutbacks, "communities must now be willing to accept more responsibilities"; in return they will gain more involvement in schools than Scottish education currently allows.

Two retired headteachers are acting as consultants and a number of local teachers, tutors and home educators would be involved in running the school.

The school plans are being driven by Isla Brown, a mother of two children who attended Crossroads Primary when it closed. She believes a nursery and primary school could eventually have a roll of more than 50.

With free schools - run by communities or other interest groups with financial support from central government - off the political agenda in Scotland, the trust would have to register an independent school. At first, Ms Brown said, fees would have to be charged but the hope is that the school might eventually be self-funding.

She believes a free-school model is preferable to independent status, but distanced Crossroads from the controversy around free schools in England. "It's about community, fundamentally, whereas I feel the English model has gone down an issue-driven road - like a school that's based on teaching of the classics, or faith schools," she said.

Ms Brown added that she had twice discussed her ideas with education secretary Michael Russell, who initially seemed supportive. One proposal from Ms Brown was a three-way partnership in which the community ran the school, the Scottish government paid wages and the local authority provided education resources. But Mr Russell told her in a letter last month that changes to school governance were not being considered.

A Scottish government spokesman said: "Existing governance arrangements have served, and continue to serve, Scotland's schools well, and there are no plans to change these."

Consultation around legislative changes in 2010 had given no indication that parents wished to run schools, he said. "Ministers will listen to parents and communities who have ideas about provision, though no one should be in any doubt as to the difficulties of establishing and sustaining a school of any description," he added.

Sandy Longmuir, chair of the Scottish Rural Schools Network, said the Crossroads idea should be explored, but that "opposition from many quarters" would make it difficult to run a single school of this type.

"We have long thought that a group of such schools could be run under an umbrella organisation which could reduce admin and smooth out the cost discrepancies," he said. "If local authorities don't want them but communities do, and they can be run efficiently within the current funding criteria, then the competition could only be a good thing."

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