Page last updated at 08:34 GMT, Friday, 23 October 2009 09:34 UK

Parents pushing to run own school

By Ray Furlong
Reporter, Radio 4's PM programme

tch of the new school
An architect's sketch of how the proposed school could look

The challenge of running a state school is being taken up by an ever-widening range of organisations.

Parents are now being looked at as the next group to set up and manage schools.

The Tories have promised that if they win the next election, they will make it easier for parents to do this.

Some parents' groups are already trying to get new schools up and running, but they are finding it is hard work.

Late on a dark October night, the lights are still on at Myers Grove school in Sheffield.

In 2007 the local authority decided to close it down, along with another school barely one mile away.

Parents of pupils are meeting to plan the next stage in setting up a replacement.

Sitting in the spartan surroundings of the 1960s-style food and technology room, lined with hobs and sinks, they discuss the latest development: a local bus company has agreed to provide extra services to bring in the pupils.

The group is led by Alison Piper, a full-time civil servant and mother of two teenagers.

"There was a consultation where people were saying they didn't want businesses coming in and opening an Academy. So we said, 'OK, let's run it ourselves,'" she says.

Parent Alison Piper
Alison Piper is one of the parents hoping to run the new school

She admits though that there have been a lot of hurdles which have had to be overcome.

"First of all it was getting the proposals accepted

"A difficulty came because a few months into the process there was a change of local government. The new Liberal Democrat council opposed the new school.

"So I took myself off to Parliament and I saw Jim Knight (then an education minister).

"I didn't take any papers with me, I didn't need to. I spoke from the heart and I walked away with a very positive note from him to say that it was going ahead."

That included a commitment of £28m from the "Building Schools for the Future" programme, set up by the government to fund the rebuilding of schools in England.

But while Mrs Piper fought for political backing and funding, there were also endless meetings among the parents themselves, during which some of the most basic things about a school had to be decided.

"There were things like whether the school would have a uniform. We had a long discussion about that," says Diane McKinlay, who is a local parent but also the executive head of the two schools due to close.

"We've spent a lot of time talking about transport, and a lot of time talking about the building.

"It seems very simple. Somebody said to me, 'surely there must be a template for schools?' But it's not like that!

"The architects have had a tough job, because the governing body keeps telling them 'no, that's not good enough' and they've gone back and changed it."

Questions, questions

Later the same evening, the architects arrive to give a public presentation of their plans in the school gym.

About 30 parents sit on plastic chairs opposite a giant screen with a Power Point presentation.

Questions are raised about everything from the design of the toilets to the size of the car-park.

But among the local parents, there is also opposition to the project.

We are forging the way, because this is new
Alison Piper

Toby Mallinson is leading a campaign to stop it - because it is too far away from the other school being closed.

"We want to keep the two schools on the separate sites because of the transport implications of the project," he says.

"For me it's about smaller-scale education, keeping kids in their communities rather than forcing them to travel. We hope we'll be able to get the planning board to turn this school down."

Sifting CVs

A decision on planning permission is due just before Christmas, so the project could still be scuppered.

But for now, the work goes on.

Parents' meeting
Regular meetings take place as parents plan for the future

The next task is to sift through the CVs from applicants to be head teacher.

Alison Piper and the other parents have even had training in interview techniques from the local council.

The workload is relentless, she says: "Most days I get home to 15 to 20 emails to answer, and most evenings I'm tied up with meetings.

"I've learnt a hell of a lot and I could probably write a book on this now. We are forging the way, because this is new.

"People often don't understand the vastness of what we've taken on."

Despite the huge challenge, Alison and the other parents are confident of getting the go-ahead which will see the school - Forge Valley - open in September 2011.



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