He refereed row over free school. Now he's its principal

27th April 2012 at 01:00
But DfE insists interview process was 'fair and thorough'

A very public row over a proposed free school in Suffolk intensified last week after it was announced that the independent expert who led part of a statutory consultation into the viability of the school has been hired by the group trying to set it up.

At the beginning of this year, Rob Cawley acted as the adjudicator of a disagreement between the group behind Beccles Free School and parts of the local community opposed to it. The resulting consultation document was handed to the Department for Education in January and will only be made public after schools minister Lord Hill decides whether the school can go ahead.

Since then, however, Mr Cawley has been appointed executive principal designate for Beccles Free School and the nearby Saxmundham Free School. Mr Cawley was hired by the Seckford Foundation, a 400-year-old education charity that supports a number of free schools, as well as the #163;24,000-a-year independent Woodbridge School, also in Suffolk.

The decision to hire Mr Cawley after he acted as chair on the statutory consultation has been heavily criticised by opponents of Beccles Free School, who have claimed that it compromises his independence.

Jeremy Rowe, headteacher of Sir John Leman High, which will be directly affected by the creation of a new secondary in the town, described the appointment of Mr Cawley as "astonishing".

"Mr Cawley was involved as chair of the free-school consultation. Therefore, I and many other people were astonished when he was announced as the new executive principal of the free school," Mr Rowe said. "The fact that Mr Cawley feels he can support the values of free schools is his business, but we believe that every child should be given equal opportunities and that for many of our pupils a broad curriculum is their best chance of making their way in the world successfully."

The Suffolk branch of the NUT went a little further. "It depends on how much of a conspiracy theorist you are," said Graham White, Suffolk NUT division secretary. "But it is slightly odd that, so soon after carrying out the role as chairman, he now seems to be on one side of the fence after he claimed to be completely independent."

The row over Beccles Free School has been raging since last October, when the DfE gave the plan the green light. The school was planned to open on a site already earmarked for use by Sir John Leman High. After a successful battle, Sir John Leman High was granted use of the site and Beccles Free School was forced to find alternative premises in a disused primary.

Concerns were raised about the viability of a new secondary school in a town with just 9,000 people and a consultation was launched by the DfE.

Cambridge Education, which ran the consultation, said it was "not aware" that Mr Cawley intended to apply for the free-school position until after he had completed his assignment.

Graham Watson, director of the Seckford Foundation, said: "Mr Cawley was asked by Cambridge Education to be an independent chair for two public meetings that were part of the overall statutory consultation process. In that role he had no influence over the questions asked, the responses given or the report of the meeting. He also had no input into the consultation report.

"At the time of the meetings the Seckford Foundation had not made the decision to have a principal for the Seckford Foundation Free Schools Trust. However, when we carried out the recruitment process it was open to all candidates. The Department for Education was present during the interview process and deemed it to be a 'fair and thorough process'."

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