Council in £1.5m payment row forked out £13m to change UTC into free school

Janet Downs's picture

Greenwich Council, recently criticised for paying £1.5m  to an academy trust mainly for land the council already owned, forked out £13m to change a closed University Technical College (UTC) into a secondary free school in 2016.   

Royal Greenwich UTC opened in September 2013.  Its Impact Assessment  said it would have little effect on nearby schools because of its unique curriculum, its wide catchment area and a projected rise in secondary school population in Greenwich of 8.6% between 2010 and 2017/18. 

The UTC failed to attract enough pupils.  According to Ofsted*, the Department for Education (DfE) agreed the UTC would become an 11-19 free school under a new trust in September 2016.

The UTC's £10m premises were not suitable for a secondary school.  Greenwich council, according to FE Week, needed 'to pay hefty conversion costs so that it can meet its statutory obligation to provide enough school places’.   

A less expensive way to provide sufficient school places would have been to keep a secondary school with empty places open so it could absorb these extra pupils.  But that’s not what Greenwich did.  In 2010, the same year as its projected rise in secondary school numbers was 8.6%, it voted to close Blackheath Bluecoat CofE School because of falling rolls and a deficit of £1.5m.   This was despite 91% of consultation respondents voting against closure.   

Blackheath Bluecoat eventually closed in August 2014.  Ofsted had judged it good the year before.

Let’s recap:

1         Greenwich voted to close a secondary school with empty places.

2         There was a projected need for more school places.

3         The school under the axe had a deficit of £1.5m.

4         Two years after the school was closed, Greenwich faced a £13m bill to convert a failed UTC into a secondary school.

At the same time, as I reported yesterday, Greenwich Free School (GFS) opened in 2013.  Its Impact Assessment said it could potentially have a high impact on four Greenwich secondary schools.  All four had spare places.

Fast forward to 2018 and one of those named secondary schools, Corelli College, blames its spare capacity on the three secondary free schools opened in Greenwich: GFS, Royal Greenwich Trust School and The International Academy of Greenwich.  

A fourth secondary free school is due to open in September on the site vacated by Blackheath Bluecoat.

It’s unclear how much all this has cost.  The DfE hasn’t published capital costs of free schools since 2013 although the website of the failed UTC said it cost £10m.

What we do know is that Greenwich council has a £13m bill to upgrade the UTC plus £1.5m for ‘disputed land’.  

This could perhaps have been avoided if the council had kept Blackheath Bluecoat open.


 CORRECTION 9 April 2019: incorrect link amended

*The report is no longer on Ofsted’s website but an internet search will find it.

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