An unnecessary Free School in an AONB in Devon

David Fitzsimmons's picture
Route 39: A “not so free” school arrives with a negative impact on pupils already in local schools.

On Tuesday afternoon of the February half-term holiday I was in school. As a result of predicted falling rolls I was working on draft paperwork for staffing redundancies to wipe out a predicted £115,000 deficit at the end of the 2013/4 financial year. The phone rang – it was BBC Devon. They had just received a press release on the announcement of the proposed site for the new Route 39 “Free” School. Would I be prepared to give my reaction on the following Wednesday morning? Here is my reaction:

We are constantly reminded that we live in a time of austerity and that every penny of our tax counts, (especially as we have another austerity budget today). Surely it is nonsense to build a fifth secondary school, when the current four in this area all have capacity? In addition, they are all facing financial pressures due to falling rolls and the poor per pupil funding allocated to children in Devon and Cornwall, which our local politicians seem powerless to change during this Parliament.

The DfE has a consistent line that “Free” Schools are only being built in areas where there is pressure on school places. (Search the internet for information on the Free School in Beccles in Suffolk for a similar case.) Where is the demonstrable pressure for increased school places needed between the secondary schools of Bude, Holsworthy, Great Torrington and Bideford? All four of the latter are faced with predicted falling rolls, because of a decline in the number of secondary school age children in this geographical area. Budehaven School has already been through the redundancy process as a result of falling rolls and Holsworthy has just started, because of falling rolls.

What can you do to help? I ask you to complete the Route 39 Community Consultation questionnaire  at the bottom of the page AND CLICK “NO” to question 3 on the basis that it is a complete and utter waste of public money:
3. Do you agree that the Route 39 Academy Trust should enter a funding agreement with the Secretary of State of Education, so that the school can open in September 2013

The “Free” school organisers have stated that they have 100 Year 7 places on offer for September 2013. To date we believe they have about one-third of this number of pupils - about a single class. Remember we have small primary schools in this area struggling to survive, because they are not economically viable. So what on Earth are we doing subsidising a secondary school of a similar size to a single class primary school with public money?

Having trumpeted the fact they would have 100 Year 7 pupils for September 2013 and being undersubscribed the organisers have now turned to “poaching” current Year 7 pupils to start a Year 8 – never publicised in their plans. This will have a further de-stabilising effect on the other schools in the area.

Throughout this article I have placed “Free” in inverted commas. These “Free” schools are anything but free in financial terms. They are incredibly expensive. We believe the initial grant for start up costs to be approximately £300,000 to enable appointment of a head teacher from January 2013, for example. Public money is allegedly being spent on renting industrial units at the Milky Way site until the new build school is ready. Wouldn’t you much rather that this public money was spent on resources for pupils currently in schools in the local area? This “start up” money would more than wipe out Holsworthy Community College’s projected budget deficit arising from falling rolls.

From September 2013 the “Free” School will be awarded £125,000, as they only have a single year group in the school – again more than my predicted deficit budget at the end of this financial year and the £125,000 will be spent on non-existent pupils. The “protection” is on a sliding scale and lasts for four years until they are “full”, i.e. they have 5 year groups, not necessarily 600 pupils. (Interestingly if the “Free” School accepts pupils in Year 8, one would assume the £125,000 will be reduced to the second year of operation amount.)

In discussions on the proposed “Free” School in the media my allegation that the proposed “Free” School would de-stabilise current provision in the area has been countered with the argument that the “Free” School proposals will enhance educational provision. What follows is a tangible example of the negative impact of these proposals on real children and teachers.

We are predicted to have 130 children arriving in next year’s Year 7 from September 2013. 130 pupils would warrant 5 forms of entry. However, 10 of the proposed 130 appear to be going to the “Free” School in September leaving us with 120 pupils. 120 pupils do not justify five teaching groups economically, although of course they do educationally. So I am faced with the dilemma of disadvantaging the new Year 7 by having larger groups or keeping five groups and paying for this by reducing provision higher up the school. Irrespective of how the problem is solved, a teacher is likely to lose their job. (I doubt they will be re-deployed to the “Free” school.) Is this what the parents choosing the “Free” School for their children accept as the cost of their “parental choice”? Do they really wish to disadvantage provision for other children in the area, so that their children can attend a school in rented industrial units?

I can not draw any other conclusion than to say that I see the Route 39 Free School as a complete and utter waste of public money in a time of austerity. I have submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Education to enquire as to the start up costs to date of this “Free” School and specifically the cost of purchasing Steart Farm as a location. I was told to contact the Local Authority, which did make it sound immediately that I was being “fobbed off”. The LA responded immediately, as expected: they have no involvement in the land purchase process – so why was I told to contact them? Someone in the Department for Education must know the answer, but clearly does not wish to provide it without a delay. My freedom of information request to the Department for Education was returned saying basically that they would release the figure, when they are ready. Why, when it is public money? We believe the figure is £2.9 million. Having invested this sum already, it seems inevitable the capital build money will be granted. The planning application is with Torridge District Council and starts with a statement that the presumption for any Free School application should be an automatic “yes”.

So what can you do to help? I urge you again to complete the Route 39 Community Consultation questionnaire at the bottom of the page AND CLICK “NO” to question 3:

3. Do you agree that the Route 39 Academy Trust should enter a funding agreement with the Secretary of State of Education, so that the school can open in September 2013

All views expressed in the above response are personal but heartfelt ones.

D. J. Fitzsimmons
Wednesday 20th March 2013
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