Flagship free school has only signed up 37 pupils


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The Independent Online

One of the Government’s flagship free schools has only signed up 37 pupils - despite civil servants being told over 500 parents had expressed an interest in the school.

Headteachers and local education chiefs are now questioning the viabilty of the new Beccles free school in Suffolk, which is scheduled to open for the first time in September taking in 11 to 14-year-olds.

Jeremy Rowe, headteacher of nearby Sir John Leman school, accused the Government of “wasting millions of pounds” of government funding on the scheme. 

His school is also taking in 11 and 12-year-olds for the first time this September as a result of a local government reorganisation which has seen the closure of middle schools in the county.

“There is alreasdy over capacity in the local area now,” he said. “Now I’m receiving ‘phone calls from some of the parents who have chosen the free school asking if I can take them in because they realise it is unviable.”

The free school has recruited just 10 pupils in years seven (for 11 and 12-year-olds - “not even enough pupils for a football team” as one teachers’ leader put it, 15 in year eight and 12 in year nine.

It was to have started up in the former middle school but has been forced to accept temporary accommodation on the site of a fomer infants’ school, which can house 162 pupils. The capacity will be more than doubled when it moves back to its permanent site in two years time.

It is understood to have taken on 14 teaching staff - which would give it one of the most remarkable pupil/teacher ratios in the history of education - with a new headteacher arriving on Monday.

A consultation exercise over the plans to open the school saw 3,000 people registering their opposition to it only only 21 supporting the bid.

“There was clearly no appetite for this school yet (Education Secretary) Michael Gove pressed ahead with it regardless,” said Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

“The Government’s free school policy is a dreadful waste of public money and interferes with proper school placement planning.

“They are being opened up at vast expense to the taxpayer to serve tiny numbers of pupils when other schools are being starved of funds.”

She called for a public inquiry into the free schools policy.

Stephen Twigg, Labour’s education spokesman, added: “There is real concern that in pursuing his pet projects, the Education Secretary is wasting money.

“Michael Gove should explain to Parliament how much money has been spent on this project and whether he will allow it to continue if all the places are not filled.”

Local education experts predict it will cost up to £2million to carry out all the necessary refurbishment to its proposed building.

They argue that the “Beccles 37” could be transferred to a second free school being opened by the Seckford Foundation, which is behind the plan for Beccles free school, around 20 miles away as a temporary measure - if they do not want to transfer to other neighbouring schools.

In a briefing paper, Graham Watson, director of the foundation - which also runs the nearby Woodbridge independent school,, said a campaign against the school had impacted on demand for places.

He added that over 65 per cent of parents had expressed an interest in having a place at the school.

“The experience of other free schools is that once the staff have been appointed, and the building confirmed, demand increases,” he added.

Its saga. though, is in marked contrast to the West London free school, the first secondary free school to be given the go ahead by Mr Gove, which is now one of the most oversubscribed schools in the country.

The Department for Education said free schools were initially funded according to their planned admission numbers - but that money would be recouped if these turned out to be lower than expected.

A spokeswoman added: “We expect pupil recruitment to increase steadily (at Beccles) now parents have certainty that the school will open later this year.

“Standards in Suffolk have been below the national average for the last four years.  The establishment of this free school will drive up standards and provide grea\ter opportunity and choice for parents and pupils.”

Mr Watson added that the school had received 106 expressions of interest from parents, saying:  "We continue to remain committed to providing a free school for Beccles.

"It is not unusual for a free school to have a slow uptake, moving your child to a new school is a significant decision and only one month has passed since we were given the go ahead."