Wednesday 12 December 2012

Last Night's Secondary School Meeting

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 School 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 School 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 Reading.  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 role.

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?  Rob explained that the site was commercially sensitive, that the site for the University Technical College 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 thereby promoting 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.”  

You can find out more here: and fill out the survey here: