The process has been ‘shambolic’
Way back in 2015, Oxfordshire County Council identified a need for a new secondary school in Oxford.
There was a time when such a need would have been met by the council itself: finding a site, overseeing the building, hiring staff and opening the school.
That was then, this is now.
Today it’s presumed that all new schools will be free schools. Local authorities in England can no longer commission their own schools. That responsibility has been centralised to the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
School approved in 2015
In 2015, the Department for Education approved an application from the River Learning Trust, an Oxfordshire-based multi-academy trust, to open a secondary free school, the Swan School, in Oxford.
But the school has not been built, let alone opened.
Oxfordshire County Councillor John Howson*, Lib Dem spokesperson for education in the county, describes the process leading up to the delay as ‘shambolic’.
‘The whole saga from start to the current uncertain situation shows the lack of coherence in our present education system…
Under the former rules, it seems certain that the county council, having identified the need for a secondary school, would have designed and built it in time for a 2019 opening, possibly even 2018.
Problems around the site were compounded because Oxford City Council has responsibility for planning permission for Oxford schools while Oxfordshire County Council has responsibility for school place supply.
Yesterday night, Oxford City Council approved planning permission for the new school building after having rejected it in September following concerns about damage to the green belt, traffic problems and disruption to a popular cycle track.
The school hopes to open in September 2019 in temporary buildings. The new building is ‘set to be ready’ by the following year. But this can’t be guaranteed. And it’s unclear where the temporary accommodation will be.
Delays created by DfE insisting on free school status
Writing before planning approval was given, Cllr Howson said, ‘The creation of the school as a ‘free school’ has created delay and allowed concerns about the site to create the present high degree of uncertainty.’
Surely it would be quicker, more efficient and cost-effective to allow local authorities rather than a central organisation to commission and build new schools?
*Professor Howson is a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University. He is an authority on the labour market for teachers and chairman of TeachVac, a free-to-use national vacancy service for schools and teachers.
CORRECTION 11.31: I originally wrote Oxford County Council. This should have been Oxfordshre County Council. The error has been corrected.