Interview: A steep learning curve for parents behind school bid

JUST six months ago, the idea of a tiny state-funded school being run for and by local parents in York was something that father-of-two Tim Moat was reluctant to voice even in his own backyard.

But what started as a cautious conversation with his next-door neighbour has grown into an campaign which has galvanized a community.

Now a team of parents from the Holgate area of the city could be about to turn their vision into a reality by opening what would be the smallest state secondary school in Yorkshire.

Their plan is being made possible by the Government's free school policy, which is encouraging parents and teachers to get involved in setting up their own state-funded schools.

Living in an area of York which has some 11,500 people, but no secondary school of its own, Mr Moat was convinced that Holgate was exactly the sort of community which the policy was designed to benefit.

He said: "I have been expecting some obvious problem to come up which would mean the school was impossible and couldn't be done. But here we are now with a bid having been submitted to the Government and this problem has never materialised."

After mentioning the idea to his next-door neighbour they decided to hold a community meeting to gauge whether anyone in their area would be interested – and from there they have never looked back.

Mr Moat said: "Forty people came to the first public meeting in July. People were interested to know more and the only people who had anything negative to say were local councillors who told us we didn't know what our idea was."

The organisers of the meeting were delighted with the support they received from local parents but even more pleased when the idea was given a seal of approval from teachers themselves.

The York Free School campaign was formed and a set of parents, most of whom had never met before, established a steering group to drive the project forward.

Their vision is for a secondary with just 200 places for children living in Holgate.

Council bosses have warned them that any school would need to be three times this size in order to have a viable teaching budget but the group are confident that their plan will work by using part-time specialist teachers and working with other education providers.

They also believe that providing teachers with the increased opportunity to work part-time will appeal to local people who have had children and do not want to balance family life with working full-time.

The campaign started as a way of ensuring Holgate has its own local secondary school but the parents involved are now using it to have a fundamental re-think about the kind of education they want their children to receive.

For most parents getting more involved in school life means becoming a governor or helping their child prepare for a play or a big project.

For the York group it has been to design a school from a blank piece of paper which will meet the needs of their community and win over bureaucrats in Whitehall.

At present, their project is still just an idea but such is the desire in Government for free schools to open that if all goes to plan parents will be able to choose the Holgate school later this year and send their children there from 2012.

Within months of having an initial meeting, parents were sat in Mr Moat's kitchen thrashing out the details with Government officials. A site has already been identified and much of the work developing a curriculum, admissions policy and ethos for the new school is already underway. Although a name for the proposed school has yet to be decided.

The parents have identified the former railway workers' canteen building in Holgate as the ideal site although it is not yet clear whether the existing building can be retained.

Being at the forefront of a flagship Government policy has brought with it both support from the establishment and criticism from those opposed to the coalition's plans. However for the parents in York the politics of free schools is a distraction from their goal of being able to play a direct role in their children's education.

Mr Moat's next-door neighbour Jules Rebbeck, who was the first person to hear the idea for the York Free School, said: "It is about having choice. The good schools available to us are oversubscribed or we are on the edge of catchment areas. For parents to have choice, there should be at least two good schools which they can hope to get in."

Most of the steering group are local parents, many of whom have children who could be the first to go to the new free school in York.

But for teacher Deborah Breadsell it was the idea of a small inclusive secondary school run by the community which has inspired her to get involved. She actually lives outside of the planned catchment area of the school and is thinking about moving to ensure her children can be a part of it.

She said: "I have taught in middle schools and worked as an educator at the Natural History Museum. I have experience of working as a learning support assistant in secondary schools, have been a childminder and am the mother of two small children.

"York is such an amazing place to study. There is so much history here –it is such a resource and the City walls are within walking distance of where the school will be and it would be great to be able to use it."

Although the new school is still only an idea, the parents involved say it is already starting to inspire the local community.

Mother-of-two Maxine Brown attended the first meeting out of curiosity and found herself won over by the chance to shape the future of her own children's education.

She said: "We need to grasp the bull by the horns. We have such an opportunity here to create something special for the children in our community and there has been so much positive feedback from parents."

What are free schools?

The coalition Government has introduced free schools to increase parental choice in education by getting them directly involved.

Parent and teacher groups are being encouraged to set up their own state-funded schools, which will be run independently, if they are not happy with what is on offer locally. Education Secretary Michael Gove said he hopes the policy will help give parents from all backgrounds the opportunity to send their children to the sort of school which at present only the affluent enjoy. So far, free school proposals in Yorkshire have been developed by groups in Birkenshaw, Bradford, Hull, Kirklees, Leeds and York.