Beccles and Saxmundham free schools criticised as results are ‘unacceptably low’

Saxmundham Free School

Saxmundham Free School - Credit: Contributed

The first free schools to open in east Suffolk as part of the Government’s flagship education programme have come under fire in a damning letter demanding standards improve.

Beccles Free School

Beccles Free School

Performance at Beccles and Saxmundham free schools is “unacceptably low”, according to the warning letter from the Department for Education.

This summer’s GCSE results – the first for the schools since they opened – were some of the worst in Suffolk for students getting five or more A*-C grades, including English and maths.

The schools, run by The Seckford Foundation Free Schools Trust, proved controversial when they opened. Some argued they were located in towns which already had ample school places and cost millions of pounds to set up.

Government data shows the schools, based on the former Beccles and Saxmundham middle school sites, were given almost £2.1million for ongoing costs when they opened in 2012. Statistics showing the schools’ capital costs have yet to be published.

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Tim Coulson, regional schools commissioner for the east, said in the warning letter: “The purpose of this warning notice is to inform you, as the directors of the academy trust, that the secretary of state is satisfied that the standards of performance of pupils at Saxmundham Free School and Beccles Free School are unacceptably low.

“Unless the directors take the actions listed below, the secretary of state may appoint additional directors as she sees fit.”

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Saxmundham Free School was the third-worst performing in the county, with 30% of students getting the GCSE benchmark grades, according to provisional results.

Meanwhile Beccles, which is meant to be “one of the best schools in Suffolk”, managed 43%.

When it opened it had 83 students against an original plan for an initial capacity for around 300.

Now there are 331 students at Beccles, from a current capacity of 540; there are 308 pupils at Saxmundham, which has room for 561 pupils.

Dr Robert Cawley, principal and chief executive of the Seckford Foundation, said work had started which would improve grades in the future.

“The trust’s expectations are for each student to make above average progress and achieve to the very highest level in all that they do and this aim and our ethos will not change,” he said.

“Despite the headline figures at both schools there were some very positive outcomes, with strong GCSE results in individual GCSE subjects and some excellent individual achievements.”

The trust said it had doubled the number of professional training days for teachers and all Years 10 and 11 students now had their progress checked weekly.

Therese Coffey, MP for Suffolk Coastal, said she was confident the “underlying basis” of Saxmundham Free School is “good”.

Peter Aldous, MP for Waveney, opposed the creation of the Beccles school in 2012, speaking yesterday he did not give his full backing to free schools but said the school’s headteacher and staff were “committed” and “determined” to raise standards.

“The school is here now and it’s a question of working with the Department for Education to ensure that these short-comings are addressed as quickly as possible,” he said.

Mark Bee, county councillor for Beccles and former council leader, also had concerns when the Beccles school was created. He said the school now had to be supported and that there were “green shoots” indicating results would improve.

Free schools are funded by the taxpayer but are not under local authority, instead run by independent organisations.

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