Everything we know about the Harperbury free school disaster

UPDATE 19 March. New data from Hertfordshire. Although local authorities can non longer build or even commission schools, they still have to keep track of the need for school places. Hertfordshire’s latest report (PDF) shows real and growing need for secondary places across almost the whole county in the next ten years. In Radlett and Bushey, the shortage peaks in 2022/23 when there’s a projected shortage of 181 places. That’s enough children to fill six whole school forms without places. It’s no wonder that the report prominently notes that the Harperbury Free School project has been cancelled. The area needs a new secondary school – and soon.

UPDATE 29 February. Harperbury vice chair Clive Glover has set up a petition. He wants Minster for Education Nicky Morgan to override Lord Nash’s decision and open Harperbury Free School. Sign the petition here. There are 303 signatories so far.

THE STORY SO FAR: It’s all over. The Harperbury Free School that aimed to provide 120 places per year for 11-19s from Shenley, London Colney, Radlett, Bricket Wood and Borehamwood & Elstree, has been thrown out by the Department for Education.

Clive Glover, one of the project’s founders and vice chair of governors, has written a Facebook post about it, which is well worth reading. I spoke to him at the weekend. Here’s the latest:

  1. It’s the minister’s decision. Schools Minister Lord Nash has decided that planning permission for the school is unlikely to be granted by St Albans City and District Council because the site is too small so he’s cancelled the whole scheme.
  2. It’s an EFA cock-up. The Education Funding Agency, the executive agency that dispenses £54 billion (yes, billion) per year on 3-19 education and is responsible for the Academy and Free School programmes, was responsible for launching the school. They didn’t understand the requirements and planned a project that could never have won planning permission. In an answer to a series of written Parliamentary questions from St Albans MP Anne Main, schools minister Edward Timpson vaguely blames the site’s green belt location for the cancellation but doesn’t acknowledge the EFA’s error.
  3. It’s final. There’s no formal way for the decision to be reversed and there’s no appeal process. The Harperbury group haven’t given up, though, and we may see a new or revised application, for this site or another one.
  4. It’s already cost a lot of money. Schools Minister Edward Timpson says “the combined capital and revenue cost of the project to date is £1,919,000”. Clive Glover says this almost certainly understates the actual cost.
  5. The problem hasn’t gone away. The local authority says that, by next year, there will be a shortage of places in secondary schools in the area. Bernadette John, an advisor at the Good Schools Guide, calculates around 90,000 children won’t be allocated their first choice of school nationally. Children from schools in the Radlett area are already dispersed to 57 different secondary schools – from Berkhamsted to Northwood. The council says they’ll need 500 new school places by 2022.
  6. The decision has big implications. The minister’s decision ominously suggests that he thinks it unlikely that any suitable site exists in the area. If that’s true, councils are going to have to look hard at their plans. How will the extra school places, doctor’s surgeries and leisure centres that are needed be provided if there’s no room? The Harperbury group commissioned research that identified over 60 sites in the area – from farmers’ fields to brownfield sites. Is none viable? And remember, councils can’t build their own schools any more, even when the need is evident. They must first seek proposals from academies and free schools.
  7. No children are affected and no one loses their job. After the plan was deferred for the second time last year, the Harperbury team decided not to recruit for 2016 and the headteacher and senior leadership team signed up for the second push were let go.

The core of three governors who have been looking after the project since the last deferral – Clive Glover, Sarah L’efquihi and Nick Eaves, have not given up but have not decided how they’ll respond yet. Hertsmere’s MP, Oliver Dowden, is meeting with the minister this week.

I’ll keep this blog post up to date as I learn more – and if you have any questions you’d like answered, leave them in a comment here or visit the Harperbury Facebook page.

Free School approvals – great news for Yavneh College

Visualisation of Yavneh Primary School
News this week that Yavneh College in Borehamwood has won approval for the construction of a junior school next door to the existing secondary school – a project that began as a conventional bid for local authority support but concludes as a Free School bid. The full story’s in the JC. In linked news, the release of the latest list of approvals confirms what we’d already been told back in April – that Harperbury has not won approval, putting the start date for the school hoping to open in Harper Lane back to 2017 at the earliest.

Hertsmere votes

The count for the Hertsmere local elections and referendum that took place on 5 May 2011

The nice people at Herstmere’s communications department are doing a great job today keeping electors up-to-date with the count in the local elections and the referendum on voting reform that took place yesterday.

They’re using Twitter to post regular updates and pictures (like the one above, from the count itself). Yesterday they alerted us to the fascinating fact that not everyone who gets a postal vote uses it!

Have you voted yet? Of around 9,000 postal votes sent out we have about 6,000 returned.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

And earlier today, they estimated the turnout for the elections:

A rough indication of overall turnout is 35% but we will hopefully be clarifying soon! Counters are still very busy…less than a minute ago via Mobile Web Favorite Retweet Reply

And provided the actual turnout for the referendum when it became available:

#hertsmere referendum turnout 40%. 28,905 voted. 22,721 at stations. 6,184 by post. We will keep u posted on local results as we get them!less than a minute ago via Mobile Web Favorite Retweet Reply

As I type this they’re relaying the results, ward-by-ward as they come in, like this one from one minute ago:

#Borehamwood Kenilworth labour Richard Butler electedless than a minute ago via Mobile Web Favorite Retweet Reply

Chris Hewett in the Watford Observer picks up the Liberal wipe-out at 1.15.

Harv Cohen, a Conservative councillor tweets with mixed news for the Tories:

Good news for #conservatives #hertsmere, Sam Dobin has held the seat for us , we have taken all Bushey ,unfortunately lost Kenilworthless than a minute ago via HTC Peep Favorite Retweet Reply

For me, as an elector, this poll has been transformed by social media. Where I might have been able to get results in real-time in the past, I had never bothered to. With details of the poll, the count and the result coming to me via Twitter, though, I’m significantly better-engaged. And the local authority’s willingness to use its own social media accounts to spread the word is a genuine public service. Well done Hertsmere.