Council estimates £4m loss on land grabbed by DfE for free school

Janet Downs's picture

When the Collective Spirit free school opened in Oldham in September 2013, it was on land appropriated by schools minister Lord Nash from Oldham Council. The Council estimates that the loss to Oldham in land value and lost council tax is £4 million.

The Council told the Department for Education (DfE) there were already over a thousand surplus places in Oldham during the consultation for a second free school (Phoenix Free School) when it was at the proposal stage. It also warned that one or possibly two of Oldham’s sponsored academies could become unviable.

Collective Spirit is now open – it has 42 pupils and is being funded for 60.

Now Oldham Council is under pressure again to find land for another free school which has been given the go-ahead: the Phoenix Free School. Remembering what happened last year, the Council has decided to hand over land in Rosary Road in return for a “peppercorn rent” so the DfE won’t seize more valuable development land elsewhere.

It’s not the first time the DfE has used, or threatened to use, its powers under the 2010 Education Act to take over land. The King’s Leadership Academy, Warrington, was established on land which the Council said they had been pressurized to “release”. The free school opened in September 2012 with just 38 pupils. It now has 152 but is funded for 165.
The power provided by law for the DfE to seize land is unacceptable. It removes the ability of local councils to decide how best to use local amenities. If local people don’t like the way a council uses local assets then they can vote the council out. But neither they nor councils have any power to oppose a DfE land grab.

CCORRECTION  1 May 2018: Oldham Council's remark about a thousand surplus places was in the response to the proposal to open a second free school, Phoenix Free School.  The opening of Collective Spirit had added to an already-existing surplus.   The original article implied Oldham Council was responding to the proposal to open Collective Spirit.  It has been amended.

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Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 27/02/2014 - 18:32

Janet, set against that is the fact that the powers DfE has to prevent land scheduled for educational use being lost to the education sector are vitally necessary to preserve the schools estate. IMHO these powers have not been used enough in the past. Many councils now facing a shortage of primary places are the same ones that sold off school assets for private residential development.

We shouldn't forget either that much of the land owned by LAs was purchased with capital money provided by DfE (or its forerunners) through the schools capital budget. Councils should not be free simply to switch it to other purposes.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 27/02/2014 - 19:35

Agreed Barry.

My fear is that the independence of Free Schools could lead to the sponsor being able to liquidate assets in the event of a school closure. This may well be irrational but having seem E-Act lose 10 of its chain, were they told to return the school to the appropriate LAs, no, they were told to find another sponsor. So Gove sits there saying heads I win (academising LA schools) and tails I win (failed academies switch sponsor).

Celia Dignan's picture
Thu, 27/02/2014 - 21:36

The same thing is happening in Islington where DfE threatening to requisition land worth £10 million, which the council has earmarked for much-needed social housing, for a free school that will create surplus primary places in one of the few London Boroughs that doesn't 't need more primary provision .

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/02/2014 - 09:37

Barry - that's fair enough if there is a need for extra school places. In that case it would be unlikely there would be surplus land designated for educational use - it would be being used. But LAs are required by law to manage the supply of school places.

Because the law requires LAs to manage school place supply, this meant when school rolls were falling LAs sold off school land for housing (it happened near me when two schools were amalgamated due to falling rolls - one was sold, demolished and is now a housing estate).

School rolls are now rising in some parts of the country and there is an urgent need for more places. But this isn't the case in Oldham.

The Government is making it impossible for LAs to manage school place supply if they allow free schools to open in areas with a surplus. And it makes the matters worse if they appropriate local assets to do so.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/02/2014 - 09:41

Andy - I wonder what will happen now to the land and buildings of the Discovery New School, now closed but which was set up and developed at taxpayers' expense.

I also wondered what would happen in Lincolnshire when West Grantham Academies Trust decided to close one of its academies. Would the land, rented at what is described as a "peppercorn rent" (but wasn't so "peppercorn" in the case of Kings Science Academy), revert to its owner (presumably the LA)? As it happened the academy was handed over to another sponsor - I expect the same will happen to the former E-Act academies.

Barry Wise's picture
Fri, 28/02/2014 - 09:44


I think it was Keynes who said "In the long run, we are all dead." He might just as well have said: "In the long run, everywhere has a need for more school places."

Populations are rising and will continue to rise. Some day every council will need land for schools. It makes no sense to dispose of such land or to divert it to housing. The cost of buying it back (especially in London) could be prohibitive.

Brian's picture
Fri, 28/02/2014 - 12:48

'It makes no sense to dispose of such land or to divert it to housing. The cost of buying it back .... could be prohibitive.

I must admit if I had an asset (such as land suitable for a school sometime in the future) I think I'd be tempted to sell it off if it was likely that at some point the Secretary of State for Education would simply confiscate it and hand it over to a private company.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/02/2014 - 14:13

Barry - there's a balance to be struck between ensuring a sufficient supply of school places and running up a surplus. At what point does the surplus become poor value for money?

The NAO estimated a minimum of 5% surplus places was needed in order to allow for parental choice etc although there was no statutory duty for LAs to keep this 5%. The challenge until recently was to remove surplus places - this trend has now reversed. But there is still a surplus of primary places nationally, the NAO found. The demand for places is in certain hotspots such as London.

Oldham is not one such hotspot. The Council said there were 1,000 surplus places yet the Government has opened one free secondary school and is allowing one more to open in September.

The NAO found "only 19 per cent of secondary places in Free Schools" are in area with a forecast need. Oldham is not one of these yet it could have two new secondary free schools in September.

The NAO estimated "total capital costs for Schools opened in districts with no forecast need for extra school places are at least £241 million."

Added to this is the loss to Councils such as Oldham by the appropriation by the DfE of land which could be used in other ways than adding to an already oversupply of school places.

In any case, there are other ways of finding more school places - it's not necessary always to build new provision. Extra places can be found by extending existing schools, providing "bulge" classes, increasing PAN etc.

NAO reports here and here.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 28/02/2014 - 15:01

Barry - Surely the point is that as LAs have responsibility for planning and providing for school places, they have to control their land and property assets.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/02/2014 - 15:18

This comment is from Roger Titcombe who is having problems posting comments:

Barry - Surely the point is that as LAs have responsibility for planning and providing for school places, they have to control their land and property assets.

Chris Manners's picture
Fri, 28/02/2014 - 22:18

Christ almighty, that Phoenix School.

The SEN page there is criminally bad.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 01/03/2014 - 10:39

Chris - Tom Burkard posts extensively on this thread, starting 01/01/14

David Barry's picture
Sat, 01/03/2014 - 19:39


Your comment struck me as somewhat forceful. So I had a look at the Phoenix SEN page.

The url is here:

I find it difficult to credit!

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 08:14

Chris and David - I am uneasy about much of the content of this school's website. There are unsubstantiated and invalid comments such as differentiation = "dumbing down" and competition barely existing in other state schools, as well as the ill-informed stuff about special educational needs.

Yet this is a school which will receive taxpayers' money.

The ASA has censured the school for giving the misleading impression that one of its founders was a Professor at Derby University - but he was only a Visiting Professor which is not the same as being a permanent member of staff.

Perhaps the ASA should look at another of the claims: that the Reading Scheme promoted on the site and which will be used in the school (written and published by the same Visiting Professor) is " rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure."

Now it's true the material (called "Dancing Bears") was reviewed positively by the Gloucestershire Supporting Reading Pilot but it wasn't suggested that this material was the only one recommended:

"Supporting Early Reading Pilot successfully demonstrated that a well-founded
Wave 3 programme, such as Dancing Bears can significantly improve the outcomes
for pupils identified as having reading difficulties in Year 1."

But that was in 2009 - so it probably doesn't fit the description of rapid recognition. And being successful in Year 1 doesn't mean the same programme would be effective in secondary school.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 08:18

Chris and David - here's more of the same from the Centre for Policy Studies heavily promoting the school. It even suggests a chain of such schools and if there were further riots it would be unlikely the rioters would have been educated in these:

Andy V's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 08:56

All of this makes sense when placed in the context of a key founder of the Free School in question, Tom Burkard:

He was a main player in Mr Gove's reduction in the scope of SEN
He, as Janet points up, was a main player in Mr Gove's single minded focus on Phonics first and fast

Whether one likes or loathes the seemingly shallow and apparently dismissive articulation of his views of SEN and Differentiation on the schools website, it is true to say that prior to Gove the SEN industry was self multiplying exponentially. There was little regard given to substantiating the spiraling SEN categories let alone ways of filtering the genuine from the truculent or those slow to mature into learning.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 10:00

Andy - I'm not sure Gove has done much to halt the growth in SEN categories. Some controversial categories (eg ADHD) are still listed as being worth of assessment by the Government:

And Gove uses the SEN card when it suits him although it ended up with his looking rather silly:

Andy V's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 13:53

He has by no means arrested the excesses of the SEN industry per se but he has raised the issue and challenged those perpetuating the situation, which was needed. From my perspective it was becoming increasingly difficult to practice when the number of pupils designed as SA, SA+, Statement was growing year on year - it made cohesive and effective differentiation increasingly difficult.

A key issue is the assessment process that filters the genuine cases from those simply wanting to find a social label and additional funding for children whose formative years had been blighted by poor parenting skills (there is a link here to the Blairite 'Sure Start' programme). Literacy remains a core obstacle for a substantial minority of pupils (and a large number of parents). This is often cited as being at the root of many of the disaffected pupils. Likewise in maths. Lack of or weak parental structures and guidance at home has also been cited as a foundation for the BESD and to some extent ADHD. There is also evidence to support the impact of poor dietary options and ADHD. I will cut it short here but suffice to say that whereas genuine SEN must be addressed and appropriate support put in place, I feel strongly that the smoke and mirrors of the wider SEN industry has to be blown away and broken. Perhaps the renewed focus on character, personality and resilience should be used at the school-face to challenge both parents and their offspring. In this regard I have a feeling that the assessment process at the overview link you provide is a starting point.

David Barry's picture
Sun, 02/03/2014 - 16:38

I have given the Phoenix School's SEN policy a posting of its own:

"a very special special needs policy"

Which does create a slight overlap as some of the comments here, may also have relevance there.

David Barry's picture
Mon, 03/03/2014 - 19:04


Absolutely, and there have been a number of posts on this site about this case. See:

for a listing of these.

Of particular interest is the proposers of the Free School are a for-profit company, Bellevue Ltd who run a number of fee paying schools, both in the UK and Switzerland. The main shareholders of Bellevue are a hedge fund based in Zurich.

Chris Manners's picture
Tue, 04/03/2014 - 18:45

I don't quite get your point. Sure, poor parental structures often bring on behaviour we call "SEN". But they're sill real enough. The school has to cope with them.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 04/03/2014 - 18:54

For me there is a real difference between a child demonstrating dysfunctional behaviour patterns that impedes their learning which have been grown/learned through weak/poor parenting and the child who - for the want of a better description - has been born with a genuine obstacle/impediment to their ability to learn.

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