The DIY route will be too tough for most

19th February 2010 at 00:00
Setting up parent-backed schools is near impossible, especially in today's climate - I know, I'm the head of one

If I knew then what I know now, I would have thought twice about embarking on this odyssey." This is the wry comment of Jonathan Fingerhut, founding chair of the Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS), which is set to become one of only two parent-promoted schools in the country when it opens in Barnet in September.

As the school's first headteacher, I was somewhat of a latecomer to the complexities which Jonathan and the other parents have faced. Nevertheless, I am still staggered that it has got this far. What's more, I find it hard to imagine that there can be many - if any - other groups of parents in the country that could pull it off under current legislation.

That could be bad news for the politicians. When JCoSS became a pilot for parent-promoted schools in 2006, it was seen as the start of what the then schools minister Lord Adonis hoped would be a flood of similar applications. That didn't happen.

Now the Conservatives want to make it easier for parent groups to set up small schools outside local authority control. Based on our experience they will need radically to transform the system.

Our school's story dates back to 2001, when a small group of parents had the idea to set up a secondary. They were unhappy with the choice of Jewish secondary schools, which all operated under the auspices of the Orthodox Jewish authorities. They wanted a school that had a more inclusive, outward-looking ethos, which taught and valued equally all Jewish practices, and encouraged students to become actively involved in the wider society.

Jonathan and his co-chair identified six key challenges which they would have to overcome:

1) find a local authority that wanted them;

2) find a suitable site for the school in that local authority;

3) persuade the Government to fund 90 per cent of the capital costs;

4) raise the balance from the fewer than 300,000 Jews in this country;

5) get planning permission; and

6) set up the school and fill it with students.

The first two challenges were, perhaps, the hardest. For what felt like 40 years (but was only three) we went from Barnet to Harrow, Enfield to Hertsmere and Camden, trying to find a council that wanted us and could justify the need to provide more places at secondary level, as is their legal duty. Then Barnet came up with a proposal.

The search area for the site was necessarily constricted by the concentration of the Jewish population in London. What is more, secondary schools need large sites and the affordable ones were often non-starters: designated green belt, or requiring expensive clean-ups.

Unsurprisingly it took until Autumn 2005 to find a possible site, then home to the dilapidated East Barnet Upper School, which wanted to consolidate on a single site alongside its lower school.

The Government was then making "nice noises" about JCoSS, because market research proved the popularity of a cross-communal Jewish school and also because the plan included special provision for autistic children. There was, however, no public pot from which the school could be funded; nor were there any monies for East Barnet School's consolidation, on which the site depended.

Only after extensive lobbying did the Government see the potential of our idea as a flagship for parent-promoted schools. The capital was found for us and also for East Barnet School's redevelopment. It is frankly inconceivable, given the state of the public finances, that such a sizeable deal might be constructed now.

Soon afterwards we had a stroke of luck when we were introduced to Gerald Ronson, chief executive of property developer Heron International and one of the Jewish community's leading philanthropists.

Gerald had already helped to build schools in Britain and other countries. He immediately agreed not only to help finance the project, but also to fundraise and manage the design and building process.

Gerald brought to the project not only his money and wise counsel, but also the support of leading consultants and contractors. It is hard to see how we would have navigated the process without their experience in negotiating with agencies and regulators.

In August 2006, planning consent for JCoSS was won from Barnet Council - but again only after a difficult fight with local residents who were concerned about traffic and the potential environmental impact. The project might again have fallen at this stage were it not for our professional team and the parents' determination.

As a voluntary aided school, the backers were obliged to contribute 10 per cent of the capital costs of the school. In reality, this turned out to be more than 20 per cent. Few parent groups could begin to raise anything approaching this amount - let alone those in the deprived areas which are supposed to be key beneficiaries of parent-promoted schools.

By the beginning of 2008, as well as a trust, the school needed a temporary governing body to direct the educational side and recruit a head. Among the trust and the governors there are a number of individuals who work on JCoSS practically full-time. There are few capable individuals with the flexibility and willingness to do this.

In a few months we open to our first 187 Year 7 students, from whence the school will grow to 1,310 places. The building work is well advanced. Nevertheless, the pressure continues.

Although it is assumed our school will be popular, the challenge of recruiting 180 pupils in each of our first two years without siblings, exam results, a track record, a full complement of teachers, or even a completed building, should not be underestimated. The cost of marketing the school is substantial and any budget shortfall could undermine financial planning.

Given these many obstacles and the huge financial burden of managing a school - even one with full state funding - it is hard to envisage many parent groups able to do what the parents have done here. Certainly there is no shortage of candidates willing to try. It remains to be seen, however, whether future models for parent-promoted schools - developed by the left or right - can actually make the process any easier.

Magazine, page 28

Jeremy Stowe-Lindner, Headteacher of JCoSS, the Jewish Community Secondary School.

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