Controversy surrounds new free schools

Janet Downs's picture
It appears that Beccles Free School is not the only one dogged by controversy. In August, the Guardian revealed how the DfE pressurised a council to “release” part of a playing field belonging to the closed Woolston High School for the King’s Leadership Academy, Woolston. The closed school was earmarked for special schools and the field is used by sports clubs. A council document showed it feared the DfE would commandeer the whole site if it didn’t agree to the proposal.

The King’s Leadership Academy, which has 120 spaces in Year 7 but opened with only 38 pupils, has already upset Ofsted. The school used the Ofsted logo and claimed to be “outstanding”. Warrington Borough Council has complained to Ofsted over the newsletter, alleging it was misleading prospective parents and pupils. The school explained it was a “misunderstanding” because the Academy, like other free schools, had to pass an Ofsted pre-opening assessment.

Other free schools seem to have suffered from a similar “misunderstanding”. The Advertising Standards Authority has warned Beccles Free School over its claim to be “outstanding” before it even opened. Sandymoor Free School, Runcorn, says it is “outstanding from day one”. Sandymoor had a proposed Published Admission Number (PAN) of 90 a year but opened with just 20 year 7 and 8 pupils in temporary buildings which arrived just two weeks ago from Ireland. The school is still hoping to attract pupils even though it has opened. Its website says, “Still accepting admissions for September 2012. If you are not happy with your allocated place for September, Sandymoor could be the school for you.”

Hawthorne’s Free School, Merseyside, formed from the amalgamation of two schools, is at the centre of a row about teachers’ loss of jobs. The teachers, who have neither been made redundant or sacked, are in limbo. Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT, said the teachers were “being denied entitlement to redundancy payments.”

The Tiger School, Kent, shares premises with the New Line Learning Academy, an undersubscribed sponsored academy purpose-built for secondary pupils. Critics claim it threatens existing primary schools.

A governor at St Michael’s Catholic Secondary School, Cornwall, a free school formerly an independent, has caused controversy by saying, "Gays would be welcome to the school, but we would not encourage it."

And Bedford Free School opened its doors to its proposed intake of 200 despite having no planning permission, Becket Keys C of E Free School, which has a head with no experience of secondary education, was opposed by local head teachers and has opened in an area where the number of secondary school pupils is declining…

There are a few free schools that have opened in areas where extra school places are needed but the majority have not.  And some make existing oversupply of school places worse.  Others misleadingly claim they are "outstanding".  Some have opened despite a very small intake even though they were supposed to be set up in response to "demand".  It's difficult to see what demand is being met when schools attract only a small number of pupils.

The question is: "How many more free schools are as equally controversial as those cited above"?

UPDATE 12/9/2012 14.32

Re decline of secondary school pupils in Brentwood where Becket Keys C of E Free School has just opened:   an Essex County Council consultation (November 2009) said: “The latest data for the total number of children by year of birth, resident in the area served by the schools, shows a continued decline beyond the current Reception year which suggests the number of children needing a secondary school place each year in the Brentwood area will continue to drop, possibly to under 700, up to at least 2020.”

An Essex County Council document, Commissioning School Places 2011-2016, said “Pupil numbers are forecast to decline over the next 5 years and hence with the closure of Sawyers Hall College the surplus places are forecast to be considerably reduced by 2015/16.”

So the surplus places in Brentwood were “considerably reduced” by the closure of one secondary school.  But another secondary school has taken its place so the Council is now back to square one.


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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 12/09/2012 - 08:37

I've done the 'teachers in limbo' thing. It absolute hell for all involved. My heart goes out to them.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 12/09/2012 - 08:39

The difference was that in my case we could plough some of our frustration into making sure lessons were learned and they were, with the PWC 2008 report insisting that new state schools should not open unless they head had been in place for a minimum of 12 months and preferably 18 and all the proper protocols followed.

Then we got Michael Gove and we re-entered the dark ages.

soldierspy's picture
Wed, 12/09/2012 - 09:33

Meanwhile at state maintained schools staff, pupils and parents are adjusting to the uncomfortable reality of beginning a new term and academic year lead by individuals who were unsuccessful in their free school bids and who have now realized that just like everyone else they have to get on with doing the job for which they were employed at schools where only they had lost interest.
I'm sure everyone will do their best to move forward but it won't be easy.
This is another sorry consequence of free schools that wasn't forseen by those in power.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 12/09/2012 - 10:43

And another of last year's free schools has had its admission criteria referred to the Schools Adjudicator. An objection to the admission criteria of the West London Free School was partially upheld. The adjudicator found "one matter that is not compliant with the Code" and others which were compliant but needed to be clarified on the school's website for the benefit of parents. The Adjudicator found that the school made amendments to its admission arrangements in a way which didn't comply with the Code.

The full judgement can be downloaded here:

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 12/09/2012 - 10:55

Another of last year’s free schools has been referred to the Schools Adjudicator about its admission criteria. The Maharishi Free School has had a second objection against its criteria partially upheld. An objection about the school’s admission criteria had already been upheld in July and was discussed here:

Judging the second objection, the Adjudicator found “the published arrangements did not show the year to which they apply; the wording in the published arrangements concerning attendance at an open day contravened the Code; and the reference to learning TM also contravened the Code. On these three matters I therefore uphold the objection.”

Copy of the Adjudicator’s decision can be downloaded from:

The question is: how many other free schools have admission criteria which do not adhere to the Code?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 12/09/2012 - 12:12


Becket Keys C of E Free School....has opened in an area where the number of secondary school pupils is declining…

Once again you are circulating myths from the NUT propaganda song sheet.

Of the 5 secondary schools that existed in Brentwood before the free school opened, 3 admitted 100% of their PANs for September 2012.

That left two schools with surplus capacity for Year 7 - totalling 56 places between them.

Yet the free school has 123 Y7 pupils on roll.

That means that had the free school not opened, 67 children would have been left without a place.

It may be that some of the other schools could have recruited over their PAN to accommodate them. This would have involved either increasing class sizes, recruiting extra teachers in a rush and shoe-horning kids into schools, at least one of which is full to bursting being already well over its capacity. The picture you give of a free school opening up in an area awash with surplus places is quite untrue.

Besides, there is another compelling case for the Becket free school. It is a CofE faith school and has clearly demonstrated there is a demand for such a school locally. There are no other CofE schools in the area. But there are Catholic ones. Why should Catholics have faith schools, but adherents of the Established Church in England be denied one? There appear to be a number of CofE primaries and it is clear that a goodly number of parents who send their children to CofE primaries want a CofE secondary too.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 12/09/2012 - 16:53

Oh yawn - here we go again:

123 children at the free school
First of all Shenfield has clearly dropped it’s PAN for pragmatics reasons to assist planning – because it knows the children won’t be there. It clearly could easily take 248 pupils (and has taken up to 258), so that’s 54 children accounted for (+ 10 extra at at push).
BCHS has 22 obvious places (+ 7 extra at a push using the same logic)
Then you’ve got +4 places at a push at St. Martins
25 students came from other schools
So that’s 101 + 21 at a push accounted for.

So at first glance it looks like there’s a problem but it’s pretty easy what’s caused the problem and how it would have disappeared if the free school had not been opened.
The intake of the four schools at the heart of this was 272 + 221 + 194 + 123 = 810
But the primary cohort was only 737, so overall 73 children have come in from schools outside the area. It could be, for example, that 25 of those have gone to the free school and 48 have gone to the other popular local schools, filling up the slack capacity which became available but for which local children would have had priority had they needed it.
So altogether you’ve got 76 obvious spare places (+21 at a push) + 73 children coming in from outside the area. So that’s 149 obvious spare places (+21 at a push).

Or were huge estates built and populated in the three intervening years? You’d need around 30 year 7 students moving in to start to see any significant crowding. That scales up to around 18×30 = 540 children. So if you’ve had a sudden local population increase of around 2000 between 2009 and 2012 then that would change the picture. To know if that has happened or not you’d need to look at the year 6 leavers numbers for the primaries.

Of course even if the mysterious extra 73 children have all come from within the catchment area (which they clearly haven't as even your figures show Ricky) you've got 123 children to go into 76 obvious places and 21 squeezed places. So all the LA would have had to have done was to consult on which school was to have the funding for the new extra stream of children.

"67 children would have been left without a place"
Bovine excrement Ricky.
If you want to get excited about a drama I suggest you look at the emerging issue of primary school places.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 13/09/2012 - 08:03


It is amusing to see you and Janet clutching at straws to support your totally deflated argument that Brentwood is so awash with surplus school places that it is irresponsible to open a free school there. All your hot air above shows is something I said myself slightly higher up the thread - that when it came to the push, existing schools could have coped with the shortfall in provision this year. What we see is an authority operating fairly close to the margin, not one with spare capacity brimming over the plate.

It's worrying when people advocate planning right down to tolerances of 50 or so places here or there. Perhaps they should go back and consider Ed Miliband's recent admission that the last government was taken by surprise by migration figures from new accession countries. The government predicted between 5000 and 13,000 per annum . The outturn was >250,000 per annum. Being wrong on that scale is par for the course for bureaucrats sadly.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 13/09/2012 - 08:09

It used to be the norm to try and run school places efficiently Ricky. A slack of 50 places used to be considered good management as rapidly fluctuating numbers cause high costs.

Neither you or I actually know if there was further slack as it seems that there has never needed to be any discussion about whether any of the three existing schools could have added another stream or not.

Please try to be forgiving of those who have not sufficiently rapidly moved on from their old belief in economic efficiency in education for your liking Ricky. Not everyone has sufficiently rapidly come to understand that if we all melt down our teaspoons there will be a great leap forward in progress.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 13/09/2012 - 09:30

Rebecca - Essex Council forecast an oversupply in Brentwood in 2008/9 - that's why they decided to close one of their secondary schools. This reduced the number of surplus places (see Update above for links to the Council's documents. These are not, as some have suggested, the NUT "song sheet"). But now a new free secondary school has been opened which throws their foreward planning into disarray.

You make a valid point above - that children may be attending Brentwood secondary schools from outside the catchment area. However, I'm not sure if this information is collected on the schools' census (It might be - the census seems fiendishly complicated). In any case, even if it is collected, I don't think it appears on DfE published data (Edubase).

An area's surplus places could be filled by pupils from outside the area putting a school inside the area as their first choice. However, when Councils make forecasts about future school provision (as they have to do) they can't make assumptions that any surplus places would be filled by pupils from outside the area.

Tubby Isaacs's picture
Tue, 16/04/2013 - 21:51

" The government predicted between 5000 and 13,000 per annum . The outturn was >250,000 per annum. Being wrong on that scale is par for the course for bureaucrats sadly."

Oh really?

"In the end, of the 15 prior member states only the UK, Ireland and Sweden fully opened their borders to nationals of the 10 states that joined the EU in May 2004, which included Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.

This would increase the 13,000 figure to 46,000 a year if you extrapolated from the average figure for his predictions for German immigration, Prof Dustmann explained - although the figure is not directly stated in the report. The Office for National Statistics now estimates that the actual figure was about 50,000 a year, he added: "Not very far off."

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