About 50 hardy people battled through heavy traffic and
freezing fog for last night’s meeting to hear and ask questions about the
proposed application for a new secondary Free
in a lecture theatre in Reading College
Rob Wilson MP hosted the meeting with a panel of: parent representatives
Laura Blackburn Finlay & Michaela Brown, plus Tim Emmett & Ash Pajpani
from GEMS Education. Myles Milner represented Reading Borough Council and sat in the audience.
Rob Wilson set the background:
that it would be a 4-form entry school for 11-16 year olds eventually educating
600 pupils within walking distance of local families and stated his keen desire
to significantly improve educational options for all his constituents. He said "what we are about to discuss is one proposal, it is by no means a done deal, it is an opportunity and it's up to us as a community to decide whether we take this up or do something else." He continued "I think most of us will agree doing nothing at all is not an option if we want a school up and running before the 'bulge' of children needing school places hits!"
Laura told the audience why she has got involved with
setting up this new Free
and her hope other
parents will do so too.
Her 6 year old
son currently going through the statementing process is a worry to her as she
thinks the prospect of him, come Year 7, managing to travel all the way to the current
nearest secondary school is frightening and unlikely.
Although she is apolitical she believes
setting up a Free School
with the help of GEMS and other parents is the
best way to ensure a new, truly local secondary school is set up in this
central urban area of East Reading
Laura explained given the short timescale before submitting the bid before the deadline of 4th January they'd decided it best to get the help and expertise of an education provider. Realistically she said for busy working people and parents without the necessary range of skills and experience to prepare the documentation would have been too huge a task.
Tim Emmett explained GEMS is an international school company
and that he’s been with GEMS for the last 3 years, before which he worked for
CfBT – another education provider
based in Reading
GEMS runs schools both in the private and
state sectors but in the latter on a “not for profit” basis.
There followed a Q & A session, which included:
Why did Rob Wilson
call the meeting instead of parents and why is he leading this bid?
Laura explained she asked the MP for his help to sort out a solution to the forecast shortage of
secondary places in East
Rob duly carried
out investigations, engaged with Reading Borough Council and introduced representatives
from GEMS to the parents.
Rob added that
having brought the bid this far it was now up to the parents, GEMS and the
local community to take the bid forward, with him stepping back into a supportive
Timing of events? Very recently, Rob Wilson spoke with GEMS
a month ago about involving them in this idea.
Who is establishing
look, feel and aspiration? Laura
replied parents are using GEMS’s blueprint as a basis which they will tweak and
amend to suit their needs, therefore anyone else in the community wanting to
influence these aspects should get involved!
Tim Emmett pointed out if the initial bid is successful, funding would
be provided by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) to hire a Headteacher a couple
of terms in advance of the school’s opening so he/she would be responsible for
delivering the parents’ look, feel and aspirations.
One parent was
concerned his Year 5 daughter would be a guinea pig to which Laura
countered there’d be huge benefits for children coming in the first year. For example as the school would be much
smaller than its final capacity of 600 pupils, each child would have more
individual attention; furthermore parents would have more say in the school’s
creation. It was pointed out that many
Free Schools have been opened already so we are past the ‘guinea pig’ stage!
Governance of school,
GEMS involvement? Laura said the
Trustees would contract the running of the school to GEMS as the company has
the necessary educational expertise.
Why can’t the location
Rob Wilson has in mind be shared and would there be scope for it to expand
beyond the 600 in the future?
explained that the site was commercially sensitive, that the site for the University
bid he put together was nearly lost to a developer because it went public,
therefore to avoid that danger it was being kept confidential. He also does not have permission from the site owner to share the location.
Rob added there is scope for increasing the
size in time if appropriate and subject to agreement.
What’s in it for GEMS?
Tim & Ash reiterated that GEMS’ Free School
branch of their international business was purely for raising educational standards
in the UK
their standing in the education sector.
How will the school
fill up? From the bottom up,
although Laura said if there was demand to have more than just Year 7 – ie Year
8 and 9 from opening they would consider the viability of delivering this.
I was extremely impressed by Laura’s enthusiasm and passion,
as well as her straight-forward answers.
At the end of the event I was delighted to see several parents signing
up to help the group. I believe many
parents share her desire which is simply that “in 10 years it’ll just be the
local school everybody goes to.”