Durham Free School acting head lambasts council over “pre-emptive” parent letter

The acting headteacher of Durham Free School is concerned about “aggressive” letters sent to parents last week, which he says “pre-empt” a final decision to close the school.

The Christian school, rated inadequate in all areas by Ofsted last Monday, is facing having its funding withdrawn by the Education Funding Agency and education secretary Nicky Morgan has stated she will close the school.

Durham County Council wrote to parents in letters received on Wednesday, January 21, inviting them to find a place for their child at another secondary school in the area. Parents were given just one week to do so.

Meanwhile, school’s governors were told they had until Tuesday, February 3, to make representations to the Secretary of State against its closure. This date comes a week after the time parents were expected to have organised a transfer.

The school inspectorate said in its report about the school that pupils were “prejudiced” and assessment and learning were both “weak”.

There are 94 year 7 and year 8 pupils at the school, which opened in September 2013.

Acting headteacher Julian Eisner said: “There is a lot of disquiet over the speed at which the LEA is moving on this, and the deadline they have given to parents seems to pre-empt the Secretary of State’s final decision.

“These letters were followed up on Thursday with telephone calls, which some parents have described as “aggressive”, asking them to state on the phone which school they would like to transfer their child to and offering a very rapid turnaround.

“Some of our parents have stood their ground, but others have felt pressured into accepting places.”

Mr Eisner queried the urgency of the county council and added: “There seems to be a clear mission here to encourage as many families as possible to leave the school quickly so that even if we do win the fight to stay open, we will not be viable, given the reduction in pupil numbers.”

An online e-petition has been launched to save the school from closure and has so far received 700 signatures.

One parent at the school, Jenny Denning, said: “Some families received letters on Wednesday, which must mean they were posted on Tuesday – only the day after the Secretary of State made her announcement. A council working at that pace suggests to me they had been briefed in advance.

“The local authority are desperate to get their hands on our children, by using aggressive strategies to re-place them, and to ensure this happens very quickly. Parents feel bullied and it’s only adding to anxiety at an already difficult time. Most parents don’t know if they’re coming or going – they certainly shouldn’t be bullied in making decisions before the deadline given to the school.”

Mr Eisner added: “I am deeply concerned at the way this is being handled and the speed at which it is being rushed through. It is a shocking example of the local authority trying to ensure that our pupils are rapidly absorbed into other schools without even waiting to see if the fate of TDFS is sealed.”

Caroline O’Neill, head of education at Durham County Council, said: “Given the announcement by the secretary of state regarding the school’s funding and the Ofsted report which stated that all aspects of the school are inadequate a number of parents are understandably concerned and anxious to get their children into alternative schools where they will receive an education which is good or better.

“We are responding to families by supporting them to find alternative schools for their children to transfer to if they request that. Some parents do not necessarily want to wait another two weeks before beginning the process of transferring their children. Some pupils whose parents have been particularly proactive will start in their new schools today.

“Parents are able to accept an alternative place at another school in principle and then withdraw their application if the Free School stays open.”

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