The parents who know what's best

19th February 2010 at 00:00
The Tories have pledged to support parents who want to set up their own schools within the state sector. But what will their impact be if they are established in areas where there is already sufficient provision?

It was just after the birth of her second son in 2001 that Kate Scrase began to think about secondary school provision in her local area. The nearest schools were packed to the gills, and to find an alternative would mean travelling many miles.

"As a parent, you are keenly aware of what is coming up on the horizon," says the lawyer turned full-time mother from south London. "If you can't see a place for your children in a local secondary school, you start to consider your options."

She faced familiar choices: move house, go private or turn her 11-year-old into a commuter. Unhappy with each of these options, she decided to kick up a fuss. After several years of arduous campaigning, signature gathering and wading her way through public sector bureaucracy, she and a score of other parents set up the Elmgreen School, Britain's first parent-promoted state school, which opened its doors in September 2007.

If they win power, the Conservatives have promised to back parent- promoted, "free" schools like Elmgreen, with the aim to "set parents free" to choose the education they want for their children and, in doing so - they claim - to raise standards.

It was Labour's 2006 Education and Inspection Act that gave parents the right to open schools; the legislation even provided a schools commissioner to help them do so. At the time, prime minister Tony Blair boasted of a new era of parental choice in which parents would help make decisions about service provision and the running of schools - for example, through parent councils.

But in most areas, the idea that parents have any real say in where their children go to school - let alone in how that school is run - is still little more than wishful thinking.

And setting up a school as Kate Scrase did is not an option for most parents - many do not have the resources or the confidence to engage in the process. According to Jonathan Fingerhut, one of the parents involved in setting up the new Jewish Community Secondary School in Barnet, north London, opening a school posed an enormous challenge.

"It took an unbelievable amount of time, effort and resources," he remembers. "Without access to lawyers, accountants and property people, it would have been impossible. If I had known what I know now when I started out eight years ago, I would never have begun."

The Tories are hoping to make the process considerably simpler. They intend to free up funding and relax planning regulations to enable parents to establish schools that will challenge those run by the local authority.

"What's now being proposed by the Conservatives is different from what we did back in 2003," says Ms Scrase. "The Tories propose creating schools in areas where there are places going spare. What we did was fill a gap in provision by creating a parent-promoted school."

When Ms Scrase began her campaign, there was no question that Norwood was in desperate need of a new secondary school. In the late 1980s, because of a decline in the birth rate - and therefore falling rolls - Lambeth had sold off 28 of its schools for flat conversions.

At around the same time, the area started to become popular among twentysomething students and young professionals. "It doesn't take a huge IQ to work out that those twentysomethings will rapidly turn into parents," says Ms Scrase. "It wasn't long before they started popping out children. But many decided to relocate to the suburbs or different boroughs due to the lack of school places in the area."

During the course of her son's primary school education, the families of 18 of the 30 children in his class moved out of the area. The frustration of local parents grew - according to one local mother, the process of applying for a secondary school place was so stressful that her 11-year- old had started to wet the bed.

"At that time, the procedure for allocating places was very cruel," says Ms Scrase. "It was not done centrally, as it is now. Instead, each school would notify the prospective pupil independently, which meant that some children were receiving one rejection letter a week spread out over a whole term. In the meantime, their classmates would be getting several offers at once - it didn't make much sense."

Locals began to notice that the area had been swept clean of teenagers. "We lost our young people," says Ms Scrase.

"I firmly believe that young people should be educated in their own community. If they attend a school where there are familiar faces in the residential streets around the school, they are much less likely to misbehave."

In November 2003, the council at last responded to the parents' disquiet by organising a meeting with their campaign group. They suggested a partnership between the council and the parents which would aim to establish and promote a new school - one that corresponded to the parents' idea of what they wanted for their children. The parents were informed that there was a piece of legislation that suggested they could be involved in founding a school, although this had never been done before.

"One thing that worked in our favour was the fact that there was a suitable plot of land," says Ms Scrase. "At the time, it was being used for educational purposes - it housed a special school, a school for students with profound physical disabilities and a pupil referral unit, all of which were in desperate need of renovation. These institutions are now situated in a new building right next to ours."

After nearly a year of campaigning and gathering supporters, the grant from the Government's Building Schools for the Future programme was approved.

This meant that the newly founded Parent Promoters Foundation could finally swing into action. "There were a great number of professionals within the foundation that contributed ideas," Ms Scrase says. "We had people who worked in local and national government; we had entrepreneurs, educationists, lawyers and architects. This is one of the great strengths of getting parents involved."

The school opened its doors to its first 180 pupils in September 2007.

Ms Scrase says the parents found dealing with the Government extremely frustrating. "The process was incredibly multi-faceted," she says. "Most of the parents worked in the private sector and weren't used to dealing with the formalities and bureaucracy of the public sector. It wasn't so much a learning curve as a vertical line - we kept coming up against obstacles that we didn't really understand and had to think up a way through as we went along."

Today, the Conservatives claim to promote a much simpler model, based on the Swedish "free schools". Parents will be able to open schools, even when there are places available at existing schools in the area. But Ms Scrase is among those who have raised concerns about the prospect.

"Being involved in this project has made me aware of the difficulties of creating a successful framework for a school," she says. "I think there is a risk that parents might be persuaded that they could start something new, but it would be better if they got involved in existing schools in their area."

Margaret Morrissey, leader of the Parents OutLoud campaign group, agrees. "Simplifying the process could lead to an increased number of parent- promoted schools, which will no doubt have a detrimental effect on existing state schools," she says.

"Are we in danger of creating areas full of poor schools where parents have opted their children out? Let's think this thing through to the last degree before we make yet another nightmare decision in an education system already cracking at the seams."

In August last year, journalist Toby Young announced that he wanted to set up a new school for his west London neighbourhood, where access to a good education was not based on income. The difference between his proposal and the case for Elmgreen, however, is that the latter was something the local authority had already been considering.

"Local authorities are understandably nervous about new state schools springing up in their boroughs that aren't part of their overall educational plan, not least because they might prove more popular than their existing schools," he says. "If they end up with an under-subscribed school on their patch then that creates problems, particularly if the failing school has been built or refurbished with the assistance of public finance initiatives."

According to Mr Young, it will make a huge difference to the prospects for parent schools if the Conservatives win the election. "We expect things to become much easier if the Tories come to power," he says. "But unless the law is changed to allow private education providers to both own and operate `free schools', as they are in Sweden, and parent groups are allowed to set up schools in partnership with companies (such as Edison Learning and Kunskapsskolan), the situation will stay the same."

Mrs Morrissey says the difficulty will lie in maintaining the level of commitment needed to sustain a school. "Parents who have children in education will soon become parents with children in higher education," she says. "So the question is whether they will continue with the level of commitment needed."

According to Ms Scrase, what matters is that parents work in partnership with their child's school, whether it is exisiting provision or new facilities in the form of parent-led institutions.

"There is lots of research which shows that the support of a parent or carer taking an interest in their education - including simple things such as ensuring they are managing their homework and getting enough sleep - has the most significant impact on a child's attainment but, maybe more importantly, on their enjoyment of school," says Ms Scrase.

"That is something any parent can do - you don't have to become a parent promoter of a new school to take on that role."

Who wants to set up schools?

  • The Parent Promoters Foundation was set up in 2003. Its campaign culminated in the opening of Elmgreen School in 2007.
  • The New Schools Network is a charity with Tory ties. It was set up last year to support the creation of planned state-funded independents.
  • Kunskapsskolan is the largest provider of independent but state-funded schools in Sweden. It opened a London office in 2007.
  • Edison runs 100 charter schools in the US and is aiming to run academies in the UK.

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