Suffolk: Controversy over free schools continues after report findings

Alde Valley School headteacher Ian Flintoff

Alde Valley School headteacher Ian Flintoff - Credit: Archant

The decision to found free schools in areas of surplus pupil places continues to provoke a storm of criticism.

Teaching representatives and local authority schools which neighbour free schools have said the opening of another institution in areas of demographic decline will limit the potential of both schools, rather than encouraging improvement through competition.

One headteacher said pupils would suffer as more surplus capacity resulted in reduced funding and narrower curriculums.

Alde Valley School, formerly Leiston Community High School, is located just five miles from Saxmundham Free School on Suffolk’s coast.

Headteacher Ian Flintoff said: “There is no doubt that our isolated position on the east coast creates a unique intake issue for us as we have no eastern catchment extension to fall back on when our roll falls.

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“The Saxmundham Free School has simply exacerbated existing demographic decline in numbers of pupils entering the secondary phase and leaves an unsatisfactory situation in which every secondary school has surplus capacity in a time of economic cut backs.

“The losers in our school will be the pupils because we will have less money to spend on providing an improved learning environment and reduced curriculum choice without significant external investment.”

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Graham White, secretary of the NUT in Suffolk, said free schools opened in Suffolk remained “significantly below capacity”.

“From an NUT perspective we say that free schools are not needed, there are plenty of spaces in other schools,” he said.

“There’s plenty of parental choice, we don’t need the free schools to raise that choice because where they are it has taken places from local authority schools and it means that local authority schools are restricted in their ability to offer as broad a curriculum as they want.”

Michael Taylor is senior deputy head of Sir John Leman High School in Beccles, one of those assessed to feel a high impact due to the opening of Beccles Free School.

He said he was “very concerned” about the impact of free schools, “because of the surplus of places and the impact it might have on curriculums because of the cost implications. It’s more expensive to run broad curriculums with fewer pupils.”

However Suffolk County Council remains broadly in favour of free schools and Councillor Lisa Chambers, cabinet member for education, skills and young people, insists they offer a viable choice to parents.

“Free schools offer parents an element of choice regarding their children’s education, much in the same way academies do. However it is important that free schools are established in areas where there is a need for additional educational provision,” she said.

“The county council has a good working relationship with the free schools in the county and works closely with both them and maintained schools in the county to ensure that the balance of provision in each area is appropriate.”

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