Wanted: Temporary user for newly-built free school which will not open for 12 months

Janet Downs's picture
Wokingham Borough Council will have to find a temporary user for the newly-built Wheatfield Primary School, Winnersh Farm, because only three parents applied for places at the free school.

Wokingham needs 2703 extra primary places by 2014/15. But any new schools are expected to be academies or free schools – the Education Act 2011 makes it clear there is a strong presumption against any other kind of school and new community schools are a last resort. The Council decided, therefore, to set up free schools. The Winnersh Farm site was chosen for one of these despite protests from locals and the Council admitting the feeder road was already heavily congested*.

The Council says the low number of applications for Wheatfield is due to foot-dragging by the Department for Education (DfE) which didn’t announce the name of the sponsor in good time. The Council received four bids to run the free school and chose one, GEMS Learning Trust, which bid to operate one free school on two sites: Winnersh Farm and Woosehill. Education Secretary, Michael Gove, had the final say on who should run the two free schools and chose a Surrey-based multi-academy trust based at Glyn School, a boys’ secondary school in Ewell.

A DfE spokesperson denied that the department was responsible for the postponement: “The claim that the delay to the opening of Wheatfield is down to the department is simply not true. In fact, Wokingham Council only put forward their preferred sponsor in March, which did not allow enough time to establish the new school before September.”

But this alleged late submission did not affect the free school on the Woosehill site, Windmill Primary, which is due to open next month.

If Wokingham Council had been allowed to open community schools without considering free schools or academies first then it could have sorted out applications long before this. But the uncertainty caused by the delay appears to have put off parents. The schools were built on Council-owned land and the capital cost were subsidized by the Council but it had to rule itself out from actually running the schools in which it had invested. The bidding process is time-consuming bureaucracy which could easily be avoided if Councils were allowed to set up and run their own schools.

That said, it appears that GEMS Learning Trust is not on the list of DfE approved academy sponsors (downloadable here). Was Wokingham Council unaware they could only accept bids from DfE approved organizations? And why did GEMS Learning Trust put in a bid to run two free schools when they hadn’t been given approval? Or has the Trust been given approval but is missing from the DfE list? That might seem a silly question as the list was updated in July 2013 but the DfE prints this instruction:

“If you are a sponsor needing to update your details or if you are not on the list please email Sponsor.CONTACTS@education.gsi.gov.uk

This doesn’t inspire much faith in the reliability of DfE lists.

In the meantime, a brand-new school will remain in mothballs for 12 months in an area with a need for more primary places unless the Council can find some practical use for it.


*Wokingham Borough Council: Invitation to submit an Expression of Interest for a new 210 place Free/Academy Primary school Opening: September 2013

UPDATE 26 September 2013.  GEMS Education Trust is now on the latest DfE approved list dated 11 September 2013.  It was not listed when I did this thread.
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