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First independent gets DfE green light to return to state sector as free school

The first independent to bid to become a state-funded free school has been given next-stage approval by the Government.

Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire is part of the latest tranche of nine applications to be backed by the Department for Education to convert to free schools.

The 400-year-old school, which became independent in 1978 and currently charges its pupils up to #163;3,000 a term, will reopen its doors in September 2011 as a free school.

It is expected that the school, which caters for four to 18-year-olds, will almost double in size, increasing its pupil roll from 350 to 660.

However, headteacher Brigid Tullie denied that the decision to become a state-funded school was financial and said it was instead due to a "combination" of reasons.

"We used to be a state school. We have always had a very large proportion of assisted places - at one stage it was around 50 per cent - so we decided we wanted to return to the state sector," Mrs Tullie said.

"We live in an area where many families are not able to afford to pay the fees.

"The demand for places at the school was significant and we were turning away as many as we were letting in because we couldn't provide the bursary support," she added.

The school will no longer be selective in its admissions, instead using fair banding to determine its intake. No fee will be charged after the school reopens.

Despite a handful of independents wanting to become maintained - albeit under the free-schools banner - there is unease surrounding the conversion.

Speaking after the general election earlier this year, former education secretary Ed Balls said allowing independents to become free schools would benefit the few at the expense of the many.

"Existing private schools will be able to close and simply reopen as free schools - but with taxpayers taking over paying all the fees," Mr Balls said.

"That would be a private school subsidy for a few, paid for by every-body else."

Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, this week echoed Mr Balls' words, adding that the free-schools policy will create a two-tier education system.

"The fact is that siblings of children who are currently paying fees will have privileged access to education for many years to come, and parents who agree to pay for the next term will also get that privilege.

"In effect, this school will continue to provide an exclusive education but now at taxpayers' expense," Mr Courtney said.

"The NUT would ordinarily welcome independent schools to the state system, to make a genuine contribution, but the entire philosophy of free schools is about setting up different tiers of education." Analysis, 30-31.

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