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Sunday 29 June 2014

Free Schools – Empty Places And Dodgy Deals

Education Secretary Michael “Oiky” Gove continues his unswerving support of the Free Schools programme, despite the continuing stream of less than favourable news about them. And one feature of the new schools that keeps on cropping up is their popularity – or, in rather a lot of cases, the lack of it. This has proved as true in the West Midlands as it has in the North East.
Yes, "Oiky", problems with your programme

Two of the government's new free schools in north-east England have filled fewer than two-thirds of their pupil places, according to new figures ... Ingleby Manor Free School, in Stockton, and Durham Free School have both failed to hit their recruitment targetstold the BBC, which was being generous: they would have been correct to say “fewer than 60%”. The usual excuses were made.

Ingleby Manor's principal David Willard said he thought demand would increase once parents saw the ‘wonderful provision’ being offered”. And how wonderful might that be, exactly? “[Ingleby Manor] will open in September in a converted unit on an industrial estate, before moving to a permanent site by the end of 2015”. Colour me unimpressed, but “Jam by the end of next year” is seriously unimpressive.

Things are worse in the West Midlands, where the Government has pulled the plug on one under-subscribed Free School: “An inner city Birmingham free school and college, set up with the support of Aston Villa, has had its funding suddenly withdrawn by Government just months after opening for the first time”. Kajans Hospitality and Catering Studio College was aimed at 14 to 18 year olds.

In any case, it won’t be welcoming a second year’s intake in September: the DfE spelt out why. “We ... have repeatedly made clear that there were concerns about the school’s viability due to low pupil numbers. Unfortunately Kajan’s was unable to recruit enough students in its second year”. But at least there were no raised eyebrows over finances, a feature of other free schools around the country.

This brings us to the Chester suburb of Hoole, where “Oiky” Gove and Stephen Mosley, who does MP impressions, have been extolling the virtues of St Martin’s Academy, a primary Free School that has just opened. As Private Eye has noted, “The founders of a new Free School near Chester paid their own companies more than £100,000 out of school funds before it even opened last September”.

And how much in the way of funds had been garnered by then? “The school’s income had at that point consisted of a £220,000 start-up grant and a £40,000 IT capital grant from the Education Funding Authority”. I’m sure those running St Martin’s will be able to furnish a suitably convincing explanation if “Oiky” requires one. But the impression left by the Eye article is not a good one.

Meanwhile, the Free Schools programme is still £1 billion over budget.

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