Suffolk: Beccles Free School hits national headlines over poor uptake

THE controversy over the poor uptake of pupil places at the Beccles Free School has today hit the political stage.

Education Secretary Michael Gove was accused today of wasting millions of pounds of public money on “pet projects which do not benefit pupils”.

Labour said that, according to its figures, the Government had spent at least �2.3 million on free schools which it claimed were either not opening, or lack support.

In a letter to Mr Gove, shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg highlighted the Beccles Free School saying: “�2m has been spent on a school which will serve only 37 pupils, in an area with over 10,000 spare secondary places. 3,000 people signed a petition against the school.”

He added: “By pursuing pet projects, rather than setting up schools where they are needed, millions of pounds that could be spent on improving education are being poured down the drain.

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“While families in Britain are feeling the squeeze brought about by the double-dip recession, it is surely right that the Government spends their money in a responsible manner.

The EADT reported on Thursday how the school had attracted just two pupils in the past month. The school will open with 68 youngsters across years seven, eight and nine - well under the target of 150 pupils.

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The Saxmundham Free School is proving more popular with 104 children on the books. Both schools are being opened by the Seckford Foundation Free Schools Trust.

The Government has refuted the accusation by Mr Twigg, insisting it would “never gamble with the future of our children” and that the figures had been “grossly exaggerated”.

Free schools “are overwhelmingly popular” with parents and are opening quicker, and more cheaply than previous school schemes, the Department for Education (DfE) said.

The letter also cites the One In A Million Free School in Bradford, West Yorkshire and the Riverdale Primary School in west London.

It was revealed earlier this week that the Government had decided to withdraw funding for the One In A Million school just a week before it was due to open.

A decision is still to be taken on whether the charity-run school will open next year instead.

The Riverdale Primary School is now not opening.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “These figures are grossly exaggerated. Beccles Free School will open as planned this September with 68 pupils, and One In A Million Free School is considering deferring until next year.

“The truth is free schools are opening more quickly and have been delivered more cheaply than previous schemes. Free schools are also proving overwhelmingly popular with parents - the vast majority of those opened in 2011 are already full.

“We will never gamble with the future of our children and make no apologies for setting high standards. We would never allow a free school to open which didn’t satisfy the needs of the local community and meet our strict criteria.”

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