Room at the inn - Free-school bid to set up shop in disused pub

But local critics say move would 'devalue education'

A parent-led free-school proposal in Essex is hoping to give new meaning to the term "raising the bar" - by opening a primary school in a pub.

As The TES reported last year, education secretary Michael Gove wants to relax local planning regulations to allow schools to open in a range of premises from pet shops to funeral parlours.

Now a group behind the Leigh Free School, in Leigh-on-Sea, will be swapping the pub quiz for Sats after identifying a disused pub, The Grand Hotel, as a possible location for a primary school if the application is approved by the Department for Education.

The Grand closed down after it went into administration in 2008, but the large Victorian building could be given a new lease of life with the primary school plans.

Karen Glassborow, one of the lead members behind the free-school bid, said the pub was one of two sites being considered as part of the proposal, but she insisted there would be no short measures by opening in a former public house.

"We really want the wider community to be involved and the school to have a community environment. The Grand is a fantastic building and is much-loved by the community," Ms Glassborow said.

"People have been trying to do something with it for so long - it has been a pub, a bar, a hotel, even turning it into flats has been suggested - but nothing has really worked. The building is so large it could have other community-led things happening there, such as after-school clubs and a pre-school."

But the plans to turn it into a school have been criticised by members of the community who believe a former drinking hole is unsuitable for educating children.

James Gray, a local resident, told The TES that opening a school in a pub was just a "gimmick" and that the building would not be fit for teaching children.

"A disused pub is completely unsuitable for use as a school. It not only devalues education but also risks compromising the welfare of children and staff," Mr Gray said.

The Government is keen to see the planning laws softened, as finding suitable sites for free schools is one of the main reasons Mr Gove's flagship schools policy has not taken off as expected.

Earlier this year, the education secretary even suggested that a free school could open in his Department's buildings in Westminster.

The move was inspired by Joel Klein, former head of the New York charter-school movement, upon which free schools are heavily based, who opened a charter school in the first floor of his offices.

Ty Goddard, chief executive of the British Council for School Environments, said: "There are many empty public or community buildings that, after careful study, may well be able to be converted for educational use. If we're going to meet the challenge of renewing the school estate then refurbishment and reuse of assets will play a major part."



In October last year, Michael Gove launched a consultation to relax planning laws to make it easier for parents, teachers and community groups to open up free schools.

Among the list of possible premises that could be used, the Government document suggested schools could be opened in former hairdressers, funeral parlours, takeaways, betting offices and even ice rinks.

The Department for Education is also looking into ways to make it easier for schools to "co-exist" with businesses in the same building.

In September one of the first free schools to open will be in a converted church, while proposals have been submitted for a school to be located in a disused steel works in Durham that closed down 20 years ago.

The formal consultation on reducing planning restrictions ended in December, but official guidance has yet to be issued on building regulations in relation to free schools.

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