Parents snub tax-funded free school in Beccles

Robert Cawley of the Seckford Foundation at Saxmundham Free School.

Robert Cawley of the Seckford Foundation at Saxmundham Free School.

Two flagship free schools in Suffolk which cost the taxpayer millions of pounds were the first choice for the parents of only 75 children this year.

Ixworth and Beccles free schools created 240 spaces in total for new secondary school starters in September 2016 but received 75 first-choice applications – just 31% of available spaces – before the deadline in January.

In contrast, the nearby Thurston Community College and Sir John Leman High School in Beccles were both oversubscribed. They received 578 first-choice applications for 540 places.

The Government last night refused to confirm how much public money was used to open both schools, but the Suffolk branch of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) estimates that between £5-7million of taxpayers’ funds were spent.

The Suffolk NUT also raised doubts on claims made by the Seckford Foundation Free Schools Trust, which runs both schools, that they were created to meet a “strong” need for more choice in education provision.

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Free schools, a legacy of former education secretary Michael Gove, are a type of academy funded by and accountable to the Government. They are not run by local authorities.

Beccles Free School opened in September 2012 but was criticised for being a “waste of money”. It received 32 first-choice applications for its 120 places for this September.

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Ixworth Free School opened in September 2014 and underwent a £4.4m refurbishment. It received 43 applications for 120 places.

The figures were obtained through a Freedom of Information request to Suffolk County Council.

Dr Robert Cawley, principal and chief executive of the Seckford Foundation Free Schools Trust, said: “The figures are taken from early in the school application process and are far from the final student numbers.

“There are still several months before the start of the new term and, as with past years, Beccles, Ixworth and Saxmundham free schools are expected to receive a number of late applications.

“All three schools have also seen a year-on-year growth in student numbers.

“The Beccles, Ixworth and Saxmundham communities identified the need for additional opportunity and choice of education for their children and our three free schools are responding to that need.”

But Graham White, secretary of the Suffolk NUT, said: “The free schools in Beccles and Ixworth appear to demonstrate that the need was not there, especially when many millions of pounds were spent on conversion and set-up costs.

“It is estimated that each free school cost around £5-7m conversion cost plus funding on theoretical pupils rather than actual pupils, as is the case for local authority schools and academies.

“One would have thought that with all that very generous funding to the free schools the exam results would have been better and would have attracted more pupils. That is clearly not the case.

“Free schools are unaccountable except to the trustee’s owners. They are expensive and not needed. It would also appear they are not wanted by parents.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “The department publishes free schools’ capital costs once contracts have been closed and the figures are no longer commercially sensitive. Funding for these schools will be published in due course.”

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