Enter the den: ‘dragons’ grill free-school hopefuls

20th November 2015 at 00:00
Schools minister Lord Nash recruits panel of business people to ‘probe for weaknesses’ in candidates

Free-school hopefuls must impress venture capitalists and other business leaders in Dragons’ Den-style grillings, as part of a tough new government vetting process, TES can reveal.

The checks have been introduced by schools minister Lord Nash. He has drafted in investors and business people to interview freeschool applicants when they pitch to the Department for Education.

The Conservative peer, a former venture capitalist who became an education minister in 2013, told TES he wanted to strengthen the free-school application process, making it more “rigorous”. He believes that opening a free school is similar to starting a company, so has enlisted experts in new businesses.

“They are particularly good at looking at the finances and the viability of the whole thing, and they are good at asking very direct, very probing questions,” Lord Nash said.

Power in the wrong hands?

But teaching union leaders, already concerned about proposed limits on the ability to oppose new academies, argue that the government is taking the power to decide on new schools away from local communities and handing it to private business.

Lord Nash said he had tried to strengthen the whole interview process for free-school applicants. “One of the key parts of the process is an interview, and we have been training the panels on interview techniques so they don’t just ask the first easy question that can be batted away,” he said.

“You keep probing for weaknesses. The key thing in making a decision is information and judgement. You can’t just judge things from a piece of paper – you need to be able to look people in the eye and verify that what they are saying is true.”

Future Academies, the education charity that Lord Nash founded and chairs, went through the free-school application process to open the Pimlico Primary academy in South London in 2013. The school attracted criticism at the time for appointing a headteacher, Annaliese Briggs, who had no teaching experience. She resigned just weeks after the school opened.

Asked whether applicants among the initial waves of free schools would have been approved under the new regime, Lord Nash said that “most” would have succeeded.

Tom O’Dwyer, headteacher of Kingsley Special Academy in Northamptonshire, recently went through the revised tougher process and described it as “gruelling” (see panel).

Successes and failures

Since the free-schools policy was introduced, 306 institutions have been opened, with another 116 approved. However, the DfE has been forced to close four free schools, as well as the secondary provision of another, owing to concerns over standards.

Lord Nash said that although the closures were “significant” for the pupils and families involved, they affected only 400 students. And he refused to rule out further closures. “It may be that we’ll have to close one or two but we already have 300 open, [we’re] planning to open another 500 – you have to have some failure. We haven’t had much,” he said.

“Starting a new school isn’t easy. We’ve had to issue a few warning notices, and we have written to a couple of academy sponsors who were approved under the Labour government. So it’s not entirely straightforward but I think the success rate is pretty good.”

But the NUT attacked the decision to use business leaders to approve free schools at a time when proposed legislation would limit parental power to oppose the opening of academies. “As the Education and Adoption Bill takes the right away of parents and local communities to decide on what type of school they should have, Lord Nash is giving this power to business people,” said deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney.

“Free schools are not accountable and lack transparency. Bringing in unaccountable and unelected venture capitalists and business people to conduct a Dragons’ Den-style interrogation of new applicants will certainly not address this.

“What it does highlight is the increasing desperation of government for a policy that is not working and not needed.”

View from a survivor of the den: ‘It wasn’t fun’

Tom O’Dwyer is setting up the Corby Free Special School, a free school for children with special educational needs and disabilities that is due to open in September 2017. He describes the interview process as a “sticky afternoon”.

“It wasn’t fun; it was certainly good for your digestion,” Mr O’Dwyer says. “They were very tough and very alien questions to somebody from my background. After about half an hour they switched to questions about education, which was just a huge relief.

“I don’t know how onerous it was before this [process was introduced], as this is the first time we have opened a free school. But I do know how onerous this one was.”

Mr O’Dwyer says he and his team were quizzed by five interviewers, who “focused very intensely” on their partnership with another education trust and on their model of governance.

“The interview was gruelling as they challenged me hugely on the relationship between our group and the Brooke Weston Trust,” he says. “They challenged us on the skills gap in our governance model. We had a lot of headteachers in our governance, but not the finance or legal representation.”

But Mr O’Dwyer says the process was “hugely rewarding”.

“This is an exciting time for us, and we gained a huge amount from the experience.”

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