PARENTS need to find out the facts for themselves to make an informed decision about a new Free School for Southwater.
That was the message from Horsham Churches Together in reaction to criticisms from a group of headteachers in last week’s County Times.
The heads said there was not an inevitable need for a new school, they complained of a lack of communication, a rushed consultation process, links to a developer, no support from the diocese and parents having to make a decision without a headteacher in place.
Bryan Steele, Horsham Churches Together development worker, said there was confusion about what a ‘free school’ meant and parents should look at it simply as the government’s new approach to fund a school.
It would have its own board of governors similar to other schools - made up of parents, local business people, the local authority and staff.
The process to bring about a free school involved several stages and the first was to identify parental support before applying to the Department for Education.
“We have chosen to look at whether there is a need for a school as well,” he said.
“We believe it is important there is a good education system across the whole of the Horsham area and are very keen to make sure what is being done in Southwater complements the good schools we already have.”
If the Department for Education agreed there should be a school they would move to the next stage of detailed consultation, like transport planning, infrastructure planning, what the school would look like and how it would fit in with other schools.
“It is important parents understand this is not the end of any conversation, it is really the beginning of the conversation if they would like a new school for their children,” said Mr Steele.
“West Sussex County Council, which has responsibility for provision of school places, has stated there are currently more children on the roll than there are places in schools in Billingshurst and Horsham.
“They said action needs to be taken now and Southwater is the appropriate location.”
He said they first spoke to the council in October and have talked since about need and numbers.
“The council said the schools were at capacity and would be significantly over capacity by 2014.”
As well as two families whose children had to go to Crawley to attend mixed sex schools, their consultation revealed another girl who was placed at Thomas Bennett in Crawley but won a place at Millais on appeal.
“Land has already been allocated for 2,000 homes between Southwater and Tanbridge and that will put further pressure on Tanbridge and the existing schools and risk residents having to go even further afield for places,” he said, pointing out how that affected parental choice.
David Sheldon, also of Horsham Churches Together, said: “This is a critical time. If parents want us to submit a bid they have to indicate their intention to send their child to the school by the end of January or it won’t go any further.”
He said another reason for pushing forward now is that often, as awareness of central government funding programmes grows and more applications are made, other demographic issues are introduced as criteria for the final decision.
When this happens, areas such as West Sussex, and in particular the Horsham district, often find it harder to access the funding.
This has been borne out a number of times over the years in other projects.
Mr Steele said they would take any opportunities to communicate with parents and schools and anyone wanting to find out more should contact them.
“A number of parents were concerned information was not getting to parents so they have formed a parents’ consultation committee,” he said.
Another concern was they had not specified whether the school would have a sixth form.
“This is a consultation period where we would like to understand what parents want before the detailed phase.
“Children are going to have to stay on beyond GCSEs and places are going to have to be provided for that. That needs to be given thorough consideration in terms of education provision.”
Mr Steele said he met the director of education from the Anglican diocese to brief him about the project but the diocese did not meet until February so no view had been expressed yet.
“This is not a faith school, it has an open admissions policy so church attendance is not a criterion that will be taken into account when applying.
“Being in the catchment area will be of primary importance, focusing on Southwater and its surrounding villages,” he said.
Not-for-profit Oasis did have a Christian ethos which involved every young person reaching their full potential, building a positive, affirming environment, protecting rights to freedom and choice, working against discrimination, promoting a balanced and healthy lifestyle, having outstanding staff and building strong relationships with parents and the community.
“It would have a standard RE and science curriculum you would get at any secondary school.”
Mr Steele said they had no links to any development and the Free School application was totally independent of any planning application.
The Department for Education would decide on a school location and could choose one of two sites identified historically at either end of the village.
Find out more at http://www.facebook.com/TOSCS
Horsham Churches Together has organised a series of coffee mornings from 9am to 11am next week so parents or carers can learn more. They are at: The Council Chamber, Beeson House, Lintot Square, on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, and
Easteds Barn, Easteds Lane, on Tuesday.