How to start a school

Experiences of being on the steering committee of a potential free school.

Whenever I hear the word "consultation" I want to pull my hair out. Parents and teachers shouldn't be allowed to set up new schools, we're told, without engaging in a lengthy "consultation" process. What does this mean? In the case of a new maintained school, "consultation" often means sticking up a series of multiple choice questions in some dark corner of the council's website. Brilliant. You've successfully "consulted" the 0.002 per cent of the borough's population who've bothered to ferret out the questionnaire and fill it in. It's a completely pointless exercise designed to rubber stamp whatever decision the director of Children's Services has already made.

Is there some more meaningful form of "consultation" that groups like the one I'm leading in West London can engage in? We thought so. About six months ago we embarked on an ambitious attempt to "consult" our local community about what people are looking for in a new school. This involved contacting all the local supplementary schools, getting in touch with ethnic and religious groups, holding public meetings on the local housing estates, and so on. We even engaged several "community outreach" charities to assist us and they duly applied for grants to fund this "consultation".

Problem is, the local "stakeholders" have proved elusive. Emails don't get returned, phone messages disappear into the ether, and no one bothers to turn up to the public meetings. OK, we've done slightly better than 0.002 per cent, but not much. And the message we've received from these groups - the one thing almost all low-income families think will make a decisive difference to educational outcomes in their communities - is "bring back corporal punishment".

Another word that gets bandied about a lot by critics of free schools is "accountability". Who will they be "accountable" to? Well, they'll be "accountable" to Ofsted, same as any other school. The idea that a parent who's unhappy with some aspect of a local-authority-run school has some form of "democratic" redress denied to a parent of a child at a free school because he or she can vote for a party other than the one currently leading the borough is ludicrous. My local authority was led by the Conservatives; it's now led by Labour. Has it made any difference to the local schools? Absolutely not. And why would it? It's the unelected officials on local authorities who are in charge of the maintained schools on their patch, not the members. If you're an ordinary parent and you don't like some aspect of your local school, you can petition the headteacher and, failing that, complain to the Board of Governors. However, if they tell you to bugger off - that's if they bother to return your calls - you've pretty much run out of options.

No, the best thing you can do if you're unhappy with the educational provision in your area is not to try and participate in some "consultation" or hold one of the existing schools "accountable" - processes designed to sap the energy of complainants in the hope that they'll go away - but to start your own school.

This is easier said than done, of course, mainly because there's no established route to follow. "Vertical learning curve" is the phrase I hear a lot from people trying to set up schools. We all want to avoid the fate of the group who set up the Jewish Community Secondary School in Barnet. They succeeded in starting a school - and hats off to them - but it took them ten years, by which time most of their children were too old to attend.
In order to start a free school, you have to acquire a degree of expertise in a dizzying array of fields. Take the educational component, by no means the most complex. After you've decided on your ethos and your curriculum - and there are library-loads of books on those two elements alone - you then have to address issues like pedagogy, setting, timetabling, discipline policy, pastoral care . . . the list is endless. My group is frequently admonished for not adequately researching these subjects, but anyone who advocates an "evidence based" approach hasn't waded through the relevant literature. Every single aspect of teaching and learning is mired in controversy. There aren't "schools of thought" about schools, so much as assembly halls full of quarrelsome eggheads, and no two of whom seem to agree about anything. They all proffer "evidence" and point you towards peer-reviewed papers in respectable social science journals, but the only "evidence" they take account of is the research that confirms their own particular ideological agenda.

As any student of this field can tell you, the point at which facts morph into opinions, and vice versa, is often impossible to discern. Ideology and "evidence" are joined together in a seamless, impossible-to-deconstruct, whole.

In my group, I've been happy to leave the four teachers on the steering committee to puzzle over these issues and, instead, focused my energies on finding a site. Here, too, the level of complexity is mind boggling. I remember when an architect friend of mine first showed me BB98 - an official document setting out the legal and regulatory framework that school buildings have to comply with. It was like a parody of red tape designed by a brilliant satirist. The idea that there were 97 other documents exactly like this was comic. No wonder there are so many "consultants" in the education field. You'd need to spend 25 years in a Benedictine monastery with a magnifying glass just to make head or tail of BB98.

My group has managed to get far enough into this whole process to glimpse the Promised Land. No, I'm not talking about a new school, but a project management company. We're one of 16 groups at "stage three", which means the Department for Education will hook us up with some people able to give us professional help. My hope is that our weekly steering committee meetings will now be chaired by a no-nonsense female executive with a Blackberry in one hand and a horsewhip in the other: "Enough chit chat. Make a decision." We'll need someone like that if we're to get our school open by next September. Of course, all this means is that everything is about to become a whole lot more complicated.

Toby Young is on the steering group of the West London Free School