The end of the dream

Feb 5, 2018

So, the news is out. Mariposa is over.

As we lick our wounds and work out what our lives look like now, I can finally write a blog post or two about the experience. Apologies for length – it has been a while!

I’d like you to take a while to think back to 2014. Cameron was Prime Minister. Gove had just left the Department for Education. Brexit was unimaginable. And after encouragement from the DfE, I started to write a blog to share my experiences of starting a little community-led free school in Harrow. But as the months and years dragged on, the atmosphere changed. The world changed. And against the backdrop of the political and social turmoil of the last few years, I have been prevented from writing properly about what has been happening to our school. Prevented sometimes by our fear of offending the wrong people. Fear of scuppering our little ship on political rocks. Uncertainty about who was causing the winds that were threatening to capsize us and how to best navigate them. And sometimes strongly discouraged, in a fairly unpleasant way, by the very same people who had originally been so keen. It has sometimes felt like we’ve been stuck in a James Graham play, with huge national and international scale political drama being excruciatingly enacted on a human scale in a little part of suburban North West London.

But now it’s all over.

The original purpose of this blog was to share our experience so that others could learn from our journey. I will gradually address some of the more detailed learning in other blogs, but for now I’d like to just take a moment to highlight what has just been lost, because it’s not just ‘another free school’ and no one who truly cares about Harrow’s children should be celebrating our demise.

Mariposa Primary School was being started by a community group. A group of local parents and teachers who wanted to start the very best school they could. The idea for the school came about for three reasons:

  1. There was a huge shortage of school places in Harrow. Schools were being forced to expand when neither the teachers nor the parents wanted them to. Families were struggling to get into a school of their choice.
  2. The character of primary education in Harrow was under threat.
  3. There was no way for the Local Authority to start a new school.

But over time, the DfE became less and less keen on individual, community-led schools like ours. And we knew that given any chance they would prefer not to spend the money buying a decent sized site. With every change of minister, with every general election things got harder, and our school was delayed. But by 2017 we had got so far we were within sight of opening.

And then Harrow Council, who had repeatedly pledged their support for our school, suddenly changed their minds and handed the DfE the excuse they needed to cancel us.

That excuse came in the form of a technicality in the planning process. As our school would slightly increase the footprint of the existing buildings on the site, we would need to demonstrate the need for school places as part of the planning process. This had never been seen as a problem because the need in Harrow was so large. However, Harrow Council then did two things;

  • Firstly they continued their (unpopular) expansion programme, expanding some schools that were already undersubscribed and in areas that didn’t necessarily need the places. Since Brexit the demand for school places as fallen – many London boroughs have seen an 8% fall, or thereabouts. Together with school funding being allocated per-pupil and budgets being cut, this leaves existing schools terrified of having empty places – even if the projections are for the population to continue to grow in the future.
  • Secondly, the council chose to support the creation of two other new schools rather than Mariposa (whilst saying they didn’t). They produced school projection reports that omitted any mention of Mariposa, whilst talking of these other new schools as if they were a certainty (one is further behind in its development than Mariposa, and the other is little more than a proposed idea). The politics behind this move are complicated, but we are under no doubt that it was a calculated political move on the part of a small number of individuals – most of the local councillors and the two local MPs have remained supportive of Mariposa throughout.

Because council projections still showed a need for two new schools in the area, we argued that we still fulfilled the need required to secure planning. Under the Free Schools Programme it is for the DfE, not the local council to decide which schools open. But for the DfE, it was excuse enough. We were already on the wrong side of the political tradewinds.

Starting new schools is expensive – and there seem to be articles in the press almost every month with another scandal over free school spending. These scandals are not without merit. But these scandals have allowed Value for Money, a phrase used in almost every conversation we seem to have with the DfE, to become a byword for starting schools in the Cheapest Way Possible. Which isn’t the same thing at all. 

Value for Money now means prioritising Multi Academy Trusts, who are able to drive costs down through Economies of Scale and keep themselves afloat through budget cuts by loaning money between their schools.

Value for Money means spending as little as possible on school buildings – putting up identical blocks that are short of light, of space and of character, rather than the beautiful inspiring new schools of the past.

Value for Money means that there is no provision for outside space for children. At least one of the new school sites proposed in Harrow is just 0.5 acres for a three form primary. Mariposa’s proposed site was closer to 6.

In short, there doesn’t seem to be any provision in a calculation of Value for Money of the value of education itself. And we don’t think spending as little as possible per child is ultimately very good value. Screwing up the childhoods, educational chances and mental health of a generation of kids is not good Value for Money. Making teachers miserable so that they leave the profession in droves is not good Value for Money. The future of our country – not to mention the immediate wellbeing of our population – is inextricably linked to good education. Cheapest is not best. At all.

Mariposa was trying to sail against these winds. We had a lovely and talented team of likeminded people forming a steering committee to make the school happen. We had secured a brilliant site and millions of pounds of investment for an area of Harrow that currently doesn’t have a primary school at all (Headstone South is the only ward without one). We had managed to convince the DfE to authorise the creation of the UK’s first co-operative, community-run free school at a time when education is moving in completely the opposite direction. We had appointed a Head Teacher, who had developed all the detailed curriculum plans and policies we’d need. We had begun accepting applications.

From my perspective, the toll on my family has been huge, financially and emotionally. I gave up my job to dedicate more time to Mariposa, which meant I didn’t qualify for maternity pay when our third child arrived in May. This, together with the huge number of unpaid days leave Hugh has taken for meetings has meant we’ve eliminated our savings, run up the credit cards and gone without things like family holidays. Plus we’re pretty exhausted and drained; for the past few years we’ve frequently been working late into the night – putting our children to bed and then switching on the computers to deal with continual stress and frequent crisis. We didn’t mind – starting a fantastic new school was worth the effort. Or so we thought.

But now…all those who told us we were foolish. That we were naïve. That people like us couldn’t or shouldn’t try to do something like this. That it wasn’t worth it.

Were they right?

One of the aims of Mariposa was to inspire our children to believe that change is possible and that they can make a difference in the world. And to lead by example.

Unfortunately, Mariposa hasn’t been a very good example.

And this is the saddest thing of all. The only thing we’ve done is proved that putting huge amounts of time and effort in to something like this is not worth it. That people shouldn’t bother.

Back in 2014 we met so many inspiring people – teachers, community groups, charities, who were all bouncing with energy and positivity. We’d walk into the DfE and the civil servants in the free schools team were pleased to see us – coming over to say hi and that they’d been following our project and wished us well. Over the past few years that positivity has evaporated. With the frequent changes of Minister for Education we’ve also seen a crazy turnover and demoralisation of staff in the DfE. The Education Funding Agency (now the Education and Skills Funding Agency – the people charged with buying school sites and developing them) has suffered the same fate, seemingly unable to move at anything other than a snail’s pace and always seeming to look for the worst in any situation. It’s been like working with the organisational equivalent of Eeyore. And one by one, the other community-led free schools in pre-opening have given up, been cancelled or indefinitely postponed. Under the shadow of terrible press coverage of some of the MATs, no one would defend the community groups who were being tarnished by the same brush.

This is what has been lost; Harrow has lost Mariposa and families and children have lost their school, but this is part of a much wider loss of the belief, positivity and will to make a difference. The focus on putting children first. The energy to fight for them. And the belief that parents, communities and local teachers all have something valuable to add to education.

In the end we were just one little community group, trying to do something good against a backdrop of some of the most negative, demoralising and damaging times in memory. It’s amazing we lasted so long. We are so, so sorry that in the end we’ve failed. 


Page 1 of 4  > >>

Feb 5, 2018

So, the news is out. Mariposa is over.

As we lick our wounds and work out what our lives look like now, I can finally write a blog post or two about the experience. Apologies for length – it has been a while!

Jul 1, 2017

Starting a new school is a long process, full of lots of hoops and reports and boring stuff that neither generates much fun or much news. We are often asked by parents for updates, as we haven’t posted much news lately. Invariably I reply with, ‘Well, we’re working on the planning process – having meetings with the ESFA (the newly-renamed Education and Skills Funding Agency) and Harrow Council and working on all the detailed plans for our curriculum and school policies and procedures’.

May 31, 2016
There are many things about our journey to starting Mariposa that have been frustrating, but none as much as the battle to announce our site. We want to be completely open and involve our community as much as possible with the new school. However, for this part, that is completely out of our hands.

Here is why…

Mar 11, 2016
We are back and things are moving fast! Our site is close to being announced, we have identified two new roles on our Steering Committee and we are advertising for our first Head Teacher.

Next page: Site