Just when it seemed every last unfortunate story about Michael “Oiky” Gove’s flagship Free Schools policy had been told, along came another tale of organisational shambles, overspending of taxpayers’ money, and brass neck to top all the others. I give you Parkfield Free School, in the south coast town of Bournemouth – but not in town for long.
Parkfield was due to open for the 2012-3 school year. It did not. So then it was going to open for the 2013-4 school year. Premises were identified. These required some work doing to make them fit for purpose. The work ran over. So the building – an office block called Dorset House – could not be used. But the commitment to opening had been made. The organisers scouted round for an alternative.
And scouting is the right word: Parkfield had to open at Butcher’s Coppice, a scout camp. In the meantime, the bill for getting Dorset House up to scratch had tripled to around £1.1 million. Fortunately, “Oiky” and his pals willingly ponied up the dosh, an act that may cause eyebrows to be raised at local authorities around the country. So did everyone then live happily ever after?
Well, no they didn’t: despite the occasionally fawning copy awarded to Parkfield (ITV Meridian from October, with its “First look at Free School on seven floors”, takes the biscuit here), all was not well. Dorset House could only be used for two years at the most, and the school couldn’t find another suitable building in Bournemouth. But help was at hand – although not in the same town.
The training centre for the National Air Traffic Control Service (NATS) was vacant, and it had classrooms ready to move in to! But there was a teensy problem: it was at Bournemouth Airport, and this is a whole six miles out of town. Worse, it is not even in the same local authority area, being in Dorset. And, as a glance at the photos shows, the centre is adjacent to the airport’s apron.
So unless the classrooms have both double glazing and air conditioning, there is the potential for pupils to be subjected to the bracing smell of aviation fuel. And many parents are not happy about the enforced car journeys: there is little public transport provision. But the school’s spin has been almost heroic.
“The move out of the town centre will probably come as a shock to many families but I am sure that there will be many of you who will be extremely pleased and excited about the new site and the enormous opportunities it provides the school with”. Yeah, promising a school in the middle of Bournemouth and then upping sticks and settling miles away, in another local authority area, is something to get “pleased and excited” about. Nothing about the Gove revolution surprises after this.
How much more money will be sprayed up the wall before the plug gets pulled?