Ever thought about setting up your own Free School?

I am sure many of you, at one time or another, have considered setting up your own school.  Maybe you have had problems finding a school that could meet the needs of your child or maybe you found one but you didn't meet the criteria (which is usually unpublished and changes depending on who you speak to).  As the school year ends and we head into the summer,  I am sure some of you are already dreading September.  For many of us the idea of setting up a Free School remains just an idea because we don't know how to begin or if we have the energy to see it through.

aspire schoolTwo parents in Kent had lots of late night chats and then decided to actually stop talking about it and start moving the idea forward.  We are delighted today to have Sarah and Donna, who are trying to establish Aspire Free School in Kent, explaining why they are doing this and also some of the history and challenges they have faced and continue to face.

As they explain, "it's not for the faint-hearted" and I am sure, like me, as you read about the knock backs and challenges they face, you will admire their tenacity.  There is a saying about doing something for the cause and not the applause and after reading this, you will probably agree that Sarah and Donna are certainly doing this for the cause.

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The majority of special schools in Kent are vastly oversubscribed and there simply are not enough spaces.

There are 22,961 children with SEND in Kent, approximately 6500 have Statements or EHC Plans and the Local Authority currently spend £17 million on transporting 4,000 children with Special Educational Needs to their nearest appropriate school. For children with High Functioning Autism living in Swale, this could be an hour or more journey, each way.

We are parents of children with autism and know only too well the battles faced. We know the battles involved in receiving a diagnosis, obtaining an Education Health Care Plan and finding a school that will not only meet but exceed your expectations for your child.  We now have our children in fantastic, supportive schools, and the difference is amazing.   However, this provision comes at a price. Our children leave home at 7.15am and return at 4.45pm, if the traffic is good.  We would prefer to take them to a local school with other children from their area but there are no schools locally to meet their specific and complex needs.

Aspire Free School is founded on the ambition to transform the life opportunities available to these young people with Autism and their families. The proposal for the school is to create a provision for those children who cannot access a mainstream environment due to their difficulties and hold an EHCP with High Functioning Autism as their primary need. Young people aged from 7 to 19 years, would learn the National Curriculum, taught in a thematic approach with many opportunities to develop and practice the skills that other children learn naturally.  Aspire wants to help children live independently, to be successful in work and have a future.

The Application

The application process itself has a very limited page count of a maximum 100 pages, which to be frank is a tall order; not in finding information to fill the document but in eliminating some of your plans and hoping that what you write is what the Department is looking for.  Each application was in excess of 54,000 words  - dissertations are much shorter and easier!

There are eight sections and five of those have sub sections too.  This is a complex process and most definitely not for the faint hearted, we have been through just about every emotion possible over the past few years

aspire teamThe bidding process

Our bid to the Department has developed over the past two years in response to the feedback received from them.

The first application was classed as "one of the best we have ever seen" but left us short on commissioned places from Kent County Council. We were instructed not to "make wholesale changes."

The second application in October 2014 was more successful, having doubled the number of commissioned places and strengthening other areas of the complex application.  Our team were invited to attend an interview in January 2015. Team meetings and preparation took place over Christmas and the New Year. Unfortunately, again the bid was unsuccessful, in four areas - we had to increase our commitment from Kent again to all places being commissioned, change our bid to accept children only with an EHCP rather than our proposed combination of both, consider working with a Multi Academy Trust and revisit the educational framework we had previously proposed.

The Department "urged" us to reapply in May 2015, leaving just six weeks to prepare and adapt our application accordingly.  Being ones to rise to a challenge, and used to adapting in many situations (having children with autism had prepared us well!) we set about rectifying and strengthening the areas of concern with our team, once again devoting many hours and sleepless nights into finding the right solution for our potential students.  Many meetings were held and the application became even more defined with 100% commissioned places from Kent County Council.  Two leading educational establishments (a university and local inclusive school with a high ratio of Special Educational Needs children) agreed to work with us in the form of a partnership and provide leadership support and best practice for our students. The educational team created a brilliant curriculum, with life skills and educational content interweaved into one , using the National Curriculum subjects as our framework and the Autism Education Trust as guidance.

Lastly, we had to make the tough decision to only accept children with an EHC Plan as this made the school more viable, despite knowing, that these children also desperately need somewhere.  There are some wonderful provisions with very dedicated staff but unfortunately, not enough of them.

The Department once again turned down our final application, this time with minor feedback not mentioned in previous rounds and also the following suggestion "This proposal would be significantly strengthened if Aspire Free School were to become part of a Multi Academy trust with experience of delivering this type of provision" which we believe is significant to the whole free school policy,

What next?

Whilst the Free School policy encourages existing academies to set up new schools, it also actively promotes that these schools are for parents and community groups to provide education in areas of deprivation and parental demand.

Swale is the second highest area of deprivation in Kent.

The Autism community have always recognised the need for Aspire Free School and in our final application, 44 parents had signed our survey to say that they would name the school as their first choice (out of the possible 24 places on offer for opening year - 2017) on their child's EHCP without even seeing the provision.  A total of 145 parents agreed that they would like their child to attend the school without seeing the provision, for 116 places on offer and a further 118 said they would like to see the school and meet staff first.

We feel that this school is still needed, so do our supporters, therefore we made the decision to set up a petition asking Nicky Morgan, Minister for Education to reconsider the application without potentially jeopardising our vision for the school and students by becoming a part of a Multi Academy Trust in these early years of development.

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SNJ Thoughts.....

We have a lot of admiration for these ladies.  Not giving up at the first hurdle is a real strength.

If you are considering setting up a Free School to meet a need in your area, don't be put off.  Parents can do this but they need to work together and they need to support the people who are putting the numerous unpaid hours in to move it forward.  In May, Tania wrote about the fact that no one cares about getting it right for our children as much as we do and that is true, not just in getting the SEND reforms right but in ensuring that the provision our children need is there.  All too often our children are the "square peg in the round hole" because that is how the system is set up.  We can make a difference but we need to work together.


Debs Aspland
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