Reporter: Esra Turk
PLANS TO GIVE Hackney its first free school have come under fierce attack. A teachers’ union has dubbed it “a free school for the Hackney middle class” and “a Michael Gove wet dream”. A local MP has also expressed doubts.
The team behind Hackney New School (HNS) went public late last year, setting up a website that stated: “A group of Hackney residents and educational experts is preparing an application for a new 11-19 secondary school in Hackney.”
The aim was to open in September next year. About 100 people have registered to show interest.
The website’s home page does not use the term “free school”. Though state funded, free schools are strongly associated with Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. They are set up, then run, by parents, teachers or charities.
Mark Lushington, of the National Union of Teachers’ Hackney branch, said: “It looks like a private school at the taxpayers’ expense. It is a free school — for the Hackney middle class. It’s Hogwarts by any other means, a Michael Gove wet dream.”
Labour’s Meg Hillier, MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, said the issue of premises and planning worried her.
She told me: “I just would be very, very unhappy to see a school opening in inadequate premise — and some of the free schools we have seen opening around the country are in, sort of, warehouses, or appalling buildings.” Hillier wanted only “the highest quality” for Hackney young people.
Andreas Wesemann, one of the steering committee, said: “I would be worried, too. We plan to do the opposite of setting up a school hurriedly without creating the best environment for students.”
The aim was to offer “something unique”. That included opening from 7.30am to 6pm, an evening school for parents, a summer school for pupils, the teaching of Latin and three modern languages and a specialism in the performing arts.
Class sizes would be between 20 and 25. Wesemann said: “The result will be, I hope, a school with an outstanding Ofsted rating and reputation.” Only Mossbourne Academy and the the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School had an outstanding rating. “We think,” he said, “that it should be more than 2 out of 12.”
A site has not yet been found but Wesemann said he and his colleagues are basing their search on gaps in the secondary school catchment areas, areas of social deprivation, the availability of suitable buildings and parental demand. They had identified several sites, ranging “from a disused public building to a brownfield site”.
Hillier worries also that the 2013 target date is “too ambitious”. Wesemann, a corporate-finance adviser, from Dalston, counters that the school may set up in an existing building that would need only minor alterations. Temporary sites available from 2013 had been identified.
Facilities for disabled people would be “extensive”.
He added: “The whole point of the project is to provide an outstanding, unique education to students from difficult or deprived backgrounds who would otherwise not get it. So a location on or near a rundown estate is an obvious target.”
* The HNS steering committee will hold a coffee morning for mothers on Fri 13 Jan 2012 at 10am and a public meeting on Sat 21 Jan 2012 at 11am, after a free breakfast. Both meetings at the Scolt Head public house, 107A Culford Road, De Beauvoir N1 4HT.
Above: Andreas Wesemann (left), Sophie Solomon, Phillippa De’Ath and Andrew Tetlow
Picture © Esra Turk