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The Seckford Foundation Free Schools Trust has received a second formal reprimand from advertising watchdog ASA for a third misleading ad. The organisation is building up a track record for less-than-candid marketing.
Seckford’s ad for a proposed Ixworth Free School claimed that restructuring would leave children with no choice on leaving primary school. The Suffolk Coalition Opposing Free Schools (SCOFS) argued that this was misleading and could not be substantiated. The ASA agreed in a ruling published on Wed 30 Jan.
Parents in the Thurston catchment already send children to schools in Bury St Edmunds, Stowmarket and elsewhere, and parents there send children to Thurston. School reorganisation won’t stop this. There is choice.
In fact, Ixworth Free School would reduce choice for children in the Thurston area. Children attending the Ixworth Free School would be limited by the restrictive curriculum proposed by Seckford, which does not meet the needs of all children and contains few choices. Children attending Thurston may have their choices reduced if smaller year sizes limit the range of courses that can be offered.
Seckford has repeatedly bent the truth in order to sell its struggling free school in Beccles. It’s sad to see them repeat the same behaviour in Ixworth. Parents seeking real choice should look elsewhere.
This week’s ASA ruling
Previous ASA rulings against Seckford
After trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority last year over improper use of the phrase “outstanding school” despite not having been judged so by Ofsted, Suffolk’s troubled education provider, The Seckford Foundation Free Schools Trust, has once again fallen foul of the ad regulator in a ruling published yesterday.
The controversial organisation runs two undersized secondary schools in Beccles and Saxmundham, failed to open a third in Stoke-by-Nayland and is currently battling to open one in Ixworth against a rival bid supported by local parents, primary schools and the Church of England.
Beccles Free School (BFS) in hot water for describing its headteacher, John Lucas, as “a former inspector and Director of Learning for Cambridgeshire”. A similarly misleading description appears in a profile attributed to Lucas on the professional networking site LinkedIn.
Unfortunately, Director of Learning for Cambridgeshire County Council is a real post that Lucas has never held.
Suffolk Coalition Opposing Free Schools (SCOFS) argued, and the ASA agreed, that this phrase significantly inflated the seniority of Lucas’s previous roles.
In an astonishing display of arrogance, BFS attempted to defend the description with reference to Lucas’s two previous roles.
Most recently, Lucas was Vice Principal and Director of Learning at Thomas Clarkson Community College, the worst performing secondary school in Cambridgeshire and 16th worst in the country at GCSE.
Prior to that, he was a General Inspector, Standards and Effectiveness, reporting to a Head of Standards and Effectiveness who, in turn, reported, ironically, to the actual Director of Learning for Cambridgeshire County Council.
In a feeble gesture, BFS offered to slightly change the offending phrase to the equally misleading “Director of Learning in Cambridgshire”, a solution the ASA rejected.
In the same ad, BFS also claimed to have passed an Ofsted pre-opening inspection “with flying colours”, despite the fact that this is a routine health, safety, welfare and suitability check with only a simple yes/no outcome. The ASA also found this claim misleading.
LinkedIn profile attributed to John Lucas
Organisation structure for Cambridgeshire County Council, including Children and Young People’s Services and its Director of Learning
News story on Thomas Clarkson Community College’s GCSE league table position
Following a freedom of information request to Suffolk County Council, this blog can reveal the official pupil counts as at 10 July 2012 for entry to new Suffolk free schools in September 2012. They paint a sad picture of free school unpopularity and failure.
|Name of School
|Beccles Free School||11||15||16||42|
|Saxmundham Free School||20||21||44||85|
|IES Breckland School||67||61||62||190|
It is hard to see how a school with cohorts of such small size will be able to deliver the kind of quality maths and triple science education needed to get the brightest pupils into our leading universities while providing a meaningful route into employment for those for whom such an academic curriculum is too challenging. Since Seckford have failed to convince me otherwise on either count, I firmly believe they will fail both ends of the ability spectrum.
Based on these year sizes, I don’t think it would be wise to send any child to do their GCSEs at any of these three schools in any of the three year groups. The tiny Y7 and Y8 groups are unlikely to grow significantly once school has started. The slightly less tiny Y9 group needs to start on GCSE courses almost straight away, so by the time they realise it’s not working, it will be too late for those pupils to fully recover, even if they switch schools. So, for different reasons, parents should conclude that the free school gamble isn’t worth it.
I would shut both of the Seckford free schools immediately. Even if the two Seckford free schools were to merge, as Peter Aldous and Mark Bee have urged them to do, the combined school is still unlikely to be viable as some parents may choose not to go to the new location.
These figures are in clear contrast to the 48% increase claimed by Seckford in a recent press article. Based on the Suffolk CC figures, the increase at Beccles is below 14%.
There are two possible interpretations of the numbers. If the Suffolk CC figures are accurate, then sensible parents are thinking twice about their choice and bailing out of the ill-advised and risky Seckford free schools as quickly as new parents are being recruited in response to Seckford’s advertising campaign.
If the Suffolk CC figures are not accurate, then there is really no reason to believe Seckford’s are any more accurate and nobody has a complete picture of the defections to and from the free schools. We won’t be sure until September which way parents who had considered both schools are going to jump. September may not be the end of the story either, as parents see the reality of a tiny free school, realise their mistake, and transfer to a full size school before the end of the first term.
In a situation where many neighbouring schools still have vacancies for September 2012, there are no effective deadlines to switching schools. Parents at Seckford free schools who are having doubts should not hesitate to have an exploratory chat with the head or a senior teacher at Sir John Lehman, Bungay, Pakefield, East Point, Stradbroke, Thomas Mills, Leiston, or Farlingaye to find out if there isn’t a better way to educate their child. Parents should not feel the least bit guilty about either making a late switch or having a conversation and then deciding not to, even after the start of next term. Search for the school on the Internet and call the number on their web site directly. You will find them very happy to talk.
Your children should come first. Choose wisely. The responsibility for dealing with this mess will end up with the DfE and the taxpayer.
There was some discussion today on the New Statesman’s politics blog about free school meals at West London Free School and its neighbouring schools:
Lisa Nandy wrote this:
Toby Young replied with this:
The figure of 23% FSM at WLFS is not disputed, but how do we get 32% FSM for neighbouring schools?
Look at WLFS on the DfE web site and compare it with nearby state secondary schools:
Hammersmith Academy has no data, so the nearest five state schools with published FSM statistics are: Sacred Heart, Cardinal Vaughan, Fulham Cross, Phoenix and Henry Compton.
In total, the five schools have 3,800 pupils, of which 1,223, or 32%, are on FSM.
DfE claimed in September 2011 that Free Schools were “targeting deprivation” and “deprived communities” in “disadvantaged areas” to “support the very poorest pupils”
By analysing FSM and SEN statistics for free schools and their nearest comparable state schools neighbours, SchoolDuggery challenged those claims.
Andrew Adonis echoed the old DfE claims by talking about “disadvantaged communities” and “disadvantaged areas” in his New Statesman piece:
Lisa Nandy, once again, challenged this view. What the comparison with the nearest state school neighbours shows is that, far from targeting disadvantaged children in neighbouring state schools, West London Free School’s real target is, as Toby Young admits in his response, middle-class children in neighbouring fee-paying independent schools.
At a time when state investment in education is being squeezed, I think this is an inappropriate use of limited public funds, and that’s why I, like Lisa Nandy, don’t support it. If the DfE really does want to target the very poorest pupils in disadvantaged areas, there are better ways of going about it.