The future of the most controversial free school approval to date was in doubt this week, after the local Tory MP and the County Council urged that the plan be shelved.
Just two months before it is due to open, backers of the Beccles Free School in Suffolk are being urged to postpone their plans after just 37 children applied to join this September.
Controversy has surrounded the free school since it was given approval by the Department for Education at the end of May.
Since then, campaigners have escalated their opposition to it, after it emerged that while more than 3,000 people were against it, it was approved with the support of just 21 parents.
Beccles Free School is backed by the Seckford Foundation which runs an independent school and residential care homes in Suffolk.
Last week, Peter Aldous, the Conservative MP for Waveney, said it would “appear appropriate” for the Seckford Foundation to “explore the possibility” of consolidating its plans for Beccles with another free school opening at the same time in nearby Saxmundham, which has attracted almost 100 pupils, making it a more viable proposition.
Mr Aldous said: “Providing young people in Suffolk with the best possible education, thereby raising aspiration and levels of achievement, is extremely important and it is vital that decisions that will shape young people’s lives for a generation are taken in a considered and reasoned manner. While I appreciate that there are strongly held views on this issue, I believe that it is vital that we put the interests of young people first.”
The plan is for the free schools in Beccles and Saxmundham to be housed in school buildings left vacant under Suffolk County Council’s reorganisation, which is seeing a three-tier system of first, middle and upper schools replaced with two-tier primary and secondary model.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Rowe, headteacher of Sir John Leman High School in Beccles, said he had already received several calls from parents who had put their names down for the free school enquiring about places at his school.
Leaflets and letters sent out by the Seckford Foundation, and seen by SecEd, are encouraging families to consider Beccles Free School, even if they have already accepted places at Sir John Leman High.
Mr Lowe said he hoped the Department for Education would heed calls for the Beccles Free School to be postponed.
“It would make sense to see how the Seckford Foundation gets on with running one school, and it would give us a period of stability in Beccles, as we work towards absorbing years 7 and 8 from the closure of Beccles Middle School this September,” he said.
“Otherwise, taxpayers will be funding a school for just 37 pupils and the DfE would effectively be giving the Foundation the gift of a free school.
“Parents are already voting with their feet and abandoning the free school now they realise just how unpopular it is.”
Mr Lowe said attempts by the Foundation to “poach” pupils at this stage were “cynical in the extreme”. “Whatever next – will they be poaching our staff?” he added. “Politicians and campaigners of every political persuasion are against this school. We could not be any clearer that it is not wanted, nor needed, in the area.”
The row over Beccles Free School has made it the most notorious free school decision by education secretary Michael Gove to date and it has sparked threats of a judicial inquiry into the criteria used to approve it.
The National Union of Teachers has referred the matter to the Information Commissioner claiming a “veil of secrecy” surrounding the decision (Veil of secrecy over free school’s approval, SecEd 320, June 14, 2012).
A DfE spokeswoman appeared unaware that calls had been made to defer Beccles Free School until 2014. However, she told SecEd: “Now that the school has been approved and any uncertainty over its future has been lifted, we would expect numbers of pupils to steadily go up and we believe that this is happening already.
“We believe that free schools will drive up academic standards in Suffolk and give parents greater choice.”
Graham Watson, director of the Seckford Foundation, said: “The Foundation remains confident that numbers will continue to rise for places at the Beccles Free School in the coming weeks as more and more people take up the freedom of choice in their child’s future education.”