TERM has started at Suffolk’s first-ever free school today – heralding the beginning a new era of education in the county.

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Stour Valley Community School in Clare, which is one of just 24 free schools opening across Britain, welcomed nearly 180 students for its first ever day of term today.

Chair of governors Keith Haisman said: “It’s been quite a campaign by the whole community, a parent group and the current group of trustees.

“Getting the school to this stage has taken a lot of hard work, tenacity and negotiating but it’s just a monumental day for the whole community to see us open.

“It’s so great to have a secondary school in a rural environment, which is not a common feature in the educational landscape, but people living in the surrounding villages were very keen to see their children able to stay in one.”

Stour Valley Community School was one of 323 institutions which applied to become a free school, and is one of just two in East Anglia which were given approval in the first round of applications, the other being The Free School in Norwich.

Mr Haisman added: “The school is what the parents wanted all along - a school with structure that has good discipline, very clear in its policy and implemented very consistently, with a traditional school uniform.

“Out ethos is that it is all about giving the children a firm start that prepares them for the world of work.

“It’s getting students to understand they are not just here to learn maths because they have to, it’s where it fits into their future and their career paths without them knowing.”

The school, which is state-funded but not run by Suffolk County Council, aims to accommodate 540 students up to the age of 16 by 2015.

The running of the school by the Stour Valley Educational trust Ltd will give teachers the freedom to decide the curriculum, length of the school day and other budget decisions although it will still be subject to Ofsted inspections, have to publish its exam results and abide by the same rules of admission as other schools.

Mr Haisman was keen to stress that the school’s funding is the same as any other school.

He said: “It’s not a penny more or penny less than what any other school receives.

“There are no favours spared for free schools.”

But Graham White, division secretary for Suffolk National Union of Teachers (NUT), has criticised the school for wasting £5million of taxpayers money to convert the former Clare Middle School site to Stour Valley Community School.

He said: “£5m to create a school where no need exists does not seem a good use of scarce funds.

“The number of pupils going to this school in September is very small so the cost per pupil is exceptionally high when compared against other schools.

“£5m could have benefited thousands of pupils rather than a handful, had that money been given to Suffolk schools, many of which need essential repairs.”

Schools Minister Lord Hill said he was sure Stour Valley Community School would provide a high standard of education.

He added: “Free schools will improve choice for parents and allow more children to have a first class education that’s close to home.”

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