The price of freedom: 'Even my mother-in-law opposed my plan to set up a 'free' secondary'

Tim Moat, who plans to set up the school near his home in York, says he just wants to give parents more choice.
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The Independent Online

Tim Moat has given up reading the message board on the website of his local newspaper. Every time a story appears about his dream to launch a free school in York, a chorus of anonymous detractors accuse of him trying to single-handedly hasten the end of state education as we know it.

Not that he is letting it get him down, or put him off his quest to create a small new secondary school close to his home in time for his eldest son to attend in 2012. He concedes, however, that the whole free school question has become a somewhat sensitive local issue. He has even had to overcome resistance to the notion from his own mother-in-law, a former teacher.

"I haven't been confronted in the street yet," says the 49-year-old communications consultant, as he outlines his plans. He is seated in what has become the campaign's command centre: the attic-cum-office of his elegant terraced house close to York's city walls. "The worst that has happened are carping website comments, but I am also energised by people saying this is a good idea. We are trying to do something that is genuinely wonderful and I am irritated by people saying it is regressive," he adds.

Some people in York are, perhaps unsurprisingly, bemused by the idea that a new school is needed. Ofsted inspectors have rated the city as "excellent" for children's services, ranking it among the top 10 in the country.

That is certainly an attitude shared by the local authority, which points out that there is no shortage of places at the two schools within a mile and a half of the Moat home. Both of them are considered to provide good education, and one has benefited from an £18m rebuild and is just about to post a dizzying 25 per cent improvement in its GCSE results.

But, careful not to trample on local sensitivities, Mr Moat makes repeated assurances that he has nothing against local provision (having been schooled in the area himself), though he does have anxieties over discipline at one of the schools, which also serves one of York's most deprived areas. It is, he says, all a matter of being given a choice – something he has already exercised by sending his children to a nearby private primary school.

"Even if I was told, 'This is your school,' and it was a great school, I would still want to see what the others were like. Without exception, every parent in this area agrees – whether they want to go to the free school or not – that it is a good idea to have an option," he says.

According to the campaign, 25 per centof parents in the Holgate area of York, where the school will eventually be based, do not get their first choice secondary school. This would seem to indicate that they are poorly served, in a city where 93 per cent do get what they want for their child in terms of secondary school.

With no experience in education other than as a parent and an enthusiatsic PTA member, it has been a steep learning curve, and Mr Moat admits to his fair share of "3am moments" when he wakes up thinking about the project. He says he has lost count of the hours he has already devoted to the school since first being impressed, before the general election, with the Tories' flagship education policy: parents, teachers and charities will receive state funding to set up their own schools. The policy drew his attention despite the fact that he describes himself as anything but a natural Conservative voter.

For him, as for many parents, secondary schooling had been an ongoing topic of dinner-table discussions, and the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, seemed to offer a possible answer to the family's concerns.

In less than five months, the campaign boasts a 10-strong steering committee, four of them teachers, and 25 parents have signed a commitment in principle to send their children there. Last week the school took another major step towards becoming a reality when it received a positive assessment on its initial application, and began to settle on a possible site for the school.

Gathered outside the preferred location, a boarded-up former railwaymen's canteen slap-bang in the centre of their community, the steering group sternly rejects the idea that they might be among the "sharp-elbowed middle classes" – thus designated by David Cameron. Julie Rebbeck, 36, a mother of two, says: "None of us has got into this from a political point of view. It is about doing something together for our community."

It is clear that campaigning for a free school can be all-consuming. But Mr Moat's wife Catherine, 45, says the family is right behind him: "The children are getting intrigued by it. They are talking about the school that dad is setting up," she says. "It does take some time, but if you are interested in your children's education you are going to want to spend the time."

Mr Moat admits that for most working parents it would be a daunting task, andthat he is lucky in being able to juggle his freelance work with the demands of the campaign: "I am enjoying it, and if I didn't have it there would be a huge hole. It has been uppermost in my mind, but it has also been very interesting." He adds, "I am not ashamed to say that this is to an extent self-motivated, but I like the idea that other people will benefit," he adds. "While you want your own school, you don't want to trample over other people to get it. We want to do right by our own children, but we don't want to do it in a way that adversely affects others. I don't want to be in a position where people are saying, 'You're all right, Jack.'"

The ethos behind the York free school will be one of smallness and pastoral care. To begin with there will be 40 children, in two classes of 20, so that after five years the school will have reached a capacity of 200 – a size that will allow the staff to know all their pupils by name. The school will be staffed by two full-time teachers and a teaching head, spread across all the subjects. It will be "academically ambitious" though "not an exam factory", and there will be an emphasis on vocational studies able to meet the demands of a changing workplace.

The money to renovate the premises will come from a £50m diverted fund of central Government money. Each child will receive roughly the same per-pupil premium (of about £4,100 per academic year) as is given to children at other local schools, according to the Department of Education.

One person who admits to harbouring concerns about the proposed free school is Pete Dwyer, director of adults, children and education for the City of York Council, although he says he has no philosophical objection to the policy. With no demographic pressure on schools expected until at least 2017, he has yet to be convinced that the level of ongoing support is there to justify a new institution. And he remains unconvinced that free schools will not have a negative impact on existing provision, if it means schools are left with unfilled places and declining levels of overall funding. "Is this the best use of public finances, considering the challenges we are all facing?" he wonders. "It is clear that free schools will be treated as academies and will receive their funding direct [from central Government]. At the current time, does it make financial sense for money to be taken out of existing provision that is well established and providing good education?"

But Mr Moat and his committee are growing in confidence with each cleared hurdle.

"We live in York, where we are blessed with a lot of brilliant schools. But Holgate isn't," he says. "You realise why people move to different areas. The previous people who we bought [our home] off were moving to a better area. We have a great house and have spent a lot of money doing it up. The last thing we want to do is start it all over again."

Tim Moat's week

Monday

Resolve to do some paid-for work. Despite email distraction and local paper journalist enquiry make a start on client project.

Tuesday

Wake to a '3am moment': need to organise steering group meeting to follow tomorrow's site visit by Partnership for Schools. Remember email from a local authority person offering free assistance – make a note to invite him too.

Wednesday

Steering group meet early and drinks filter coffee meant for honoured guests – who then have to make do with instant. Site options forensically examined, most rejected, but one highlighted as having real potential. Evening: debrief rest of steering group. LA person arrived on time after a three-hour drive (thought he was local). Feel elated after successful day. Head spinning.

Thursday

Seven-year-old daughter suggests name for school: St God's. Tell her we'll think about it. Three newspaper journalists want to know how we got on. Midday: photocall outside preferred site. Manage to fit in paid-for work, as well as writing up and emailing steering group minutes and up-dating the 95 people on mailing list who are following progress.

Friday

Daughter wants to know why my face is orange in newspaper. Receive and reply to 11 emails from people commenting on plans – all positive. Receive applications from people wanting to be trustees, and arrange times to speak to them. Make note to ask New Schools Network how many trustees we need, and what it is that trustees actually do...

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