Campaigners and teachers’ leaders have called into question the procedures used by ministers to approve new free schools, after a bid in Suffolk was given the go-ahead despite local opposition from parents, headteachers and politicians.
The strength of anger against the approval of Beccles Free School prompted the Department for Education (DfE) to publish a statement last week defending its move, claiming it would raise standards in a county that was lagging behind the national average in academic performance and stressing there was demand from parents.
But the National Union of Teachers (NUT) has referred the matter to the Information Commissioner amid claims of a “veil of secrecy” surrounding the secretary of state’s decision.
Christine Blower, NUT general secretary, said approval was granted despite “a consultation report showing that a clear majority of local people opposed the new school”.
She added: “This calls into serious doubt the process by which the education secretary is exercising his legal responsibility to take into account the impact of any new school on its neighbours.”
According to the consultation, 59 per cent of people were opposed to the plan, while 35 per cent were in favour. However, it has been claimed that some parents who signed a petition for the free school believed that they were signing to save the local middle school, which is to be closed as part of a county-wide school reorganisation in Suffolk.
Beccles Free School is to be opened this September by the Seckford Foundation, which runs an independent school and residential care homes, and has plans for up to six free schools in Suffolk. Initially it will open on the site of a former primary school at Carlton Colville, located several miles away, before moving to the site of existing Beccles Middle School in 2014.
That plan in itself has angered residents in Carlton Colville who had earmarked the building for a medical and community centre – a proposal that has been over-ruled by education secretary Michael Gove, who has used legal powers gained under recent legislation to allow the free school to move in.
Campaigners against Beccles Free School claim there is no demand for it as there are insufficient numbers of children in the area to fill it and fear it will undermine the existing Sir John Leman secondary school which serves the town.
Bob Blizzard, former Waveney MP and Labour’s prospective Parliamentary candidate for the constituency, said the free school was a “scandalous waste of public money”. He criticised the DfE for ignoring the views of the petition as well as the elected representatives, Peter Aldous, the current Waveney MP and Mark Bee, a county councillor for Beccles, who both spoke out against it.
Mr Blizzard said: “In 20 years of public life I have never seen millions spent on such a fragile and feeble project.”
It is not the first time that Mr Gove’s approvals of free schools have raised concerns. A report by the NUT, published earlier this year, outlined worries about a lack of transparency in the decision-process at the DfE and claimed the views of local authorities, headteachers and others were being ignored.
James Hargrave, a councillor in a neighbouring district, who has been observing and blogging on developments at Beccles, claimed he was “stone-walled” in his attempts under Freedom of Information legislation to see a copy of the consultation document relating to the free school. He has since received an “unreserved” apology from the DfE for the delay, but this was sent after approval for the school had already been granted.
Mr Hargrave said: “I can well imagine that neither Seckford nor the DfE wanted (the report) to be seen until after the decision had been made.”
However, the DfE spokesman said that the views of local politicians and campaigners had been carefully considered, with the majority of parents asked in favour of the school.
He added that evidence of demand for a smaller school with a core academic curriculum had also been shown when the application was first submitted, while parents also registered their interest with Suffolk County Council and the Seckford Foundation.
“The group also had to satisfy the department that the school could offer an excellent and inclusive secondary education to local children, and provide greater choice for parents. The foundation has a long track record of providing excellent education and we are confident in its capacity to do the same.”