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Sixth-form college aims to be first to open free school

A sixth-form college has applied to be the first to open its own free school in a bid to tackle underperformance in local schools.

NEW College Pontefract has submitted a bid to the Department for Education to open a new 16-19 school in nearby Doncaster.

The college, which was rated outstanding by Ofsted earlier this year, has claimed that Doncaster “needs a new college because its young people are missing out on an outstanding sixth-form experience”. If approved, this would be the first time a sixth-form college has opened its own free school.

In May, Ofsted claimed there was a “pressing need” to improve school standards in the town. More than half of pupils in the borough attend a school rated inadequate or as requiring improvement, placing it in the bottom fifth of local authorities across England in terms of exam results.

If approved, the new free school is expected to open with around 500 students, rising to 1,200 in its third year.

The proposed free school would open in 2016 and be called New College Doncaster, even though it would not legally be classed as a college. The site of the planned institution has not yet been finalised, but NEW College says the facilities would include a purpose-built theatre, dance studio and science laboratories.

It is looking to win backing from 1,000 parents as part of its application to the DfE

“Many of the 18 local schools [in Doncaster] have less than 100 students in their sixth forms,” said NEW College principal Pauline Hagen. “This means that the teachers spend most of their time teaching younger students at GCSE level and below.

“At New College Doncaster… subject teachers will be 16-19 specialists, and because they do not have to teach the 11-16 curriculums too, they can focus exclusively on [each] child’s needs.”

The question of whether to engage with the academies and free schools programme has proved to be a troublesome one for the sixth-form college sector. Two years ago, members of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA) debated plans to convert en masse to academy status, but decided against the move.

Colleges have also complained about specialist sixth-form schools erroneously using the word “college”, prompting concerns of rival institutions trading off the strong reputation of the sixth-form college sector.

SFCA deputy chief executive James Kewin (pictured) said that views among colleges were mixed, with some taking the view that free school status was the only option for expanding provision, while others remain uneasy about association with the free school brand.

The newest sixth form college was opened in Lowestoft in 2011, and no new institutions have been approved under the Coalition.

Mr Kewin, however, described NEW College’s free school plans as “innovative”. “I understand why they are looking at [opening a free school]”, he added.

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