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Teacher housing and private developers: Five things we learned about new school sites today

The boss of LocatED, which purchases free school sites and calls itself 'the UK's biggest land buyer' has shed more light on the controversial organisation

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The boss of LocatED, which purchases free school sites and calls itself 'the UK's biggest land buyer' has shed more light on the controversial organisation

The chief executive of LocatED, the company set up to buy sites for free schools on behalf of the Department for Education, made a rare public speaking appearance at an education event today.

Here are five things we learned:

1. LocatED is in the "very early stages" of exploring whether school sites can incorporate affordable housing for teachers

Lara Newman told Tes last year that LocatEd was looking at how school land could be used for key worker housing. This was in response to calls for the government to earmark affordable teacher housing units when sites were purchased for free schools, amid growing teacher homelessness.

Today, she said: "We're looking at how we can develop housing on sites, including teacher housing where there's a problem.

"We're in the very early stages. It doesn't work everywhere. It is a big thing in London, because...some MATs [multi-academy trusts] want teachers to get on the housing ladder, and we've got challenges about what happens when those guys then leave school - you've got them on your site. 

"There are a whole load of challenges we're working through at the moment."

2. It is actively looking for "unusual" and "different" sites to build schools on

Earlier in today's Westminster Education Forum event, the free school programme had come under fire for moving schools into office blocks and industrial estates.

Wayne Bates from the NASUWT teaching union said primary schools should be at the centre of the community, rather than located away from their homes, with no green space.

Tes revealed last year how the DfE has tried to conceal its plans to allow private property developers to share financial “rewards” from free schools built in retail parks and leisure developments.

Ms Newman said today: "We have to be flexible, there's no question about that. The low-hanging fruit has gone...sometimes we have to look for things that are a little bit different and a little bit unusual."

3. A "trade-off" of this approach is that not all housing will be affordable

Illustrating how LocatED was being "creative" in finding free school sites, Ms Newman cited one project that included a two-form entry primary school in a former office building, next to 19 flats - all of which would be sold privately, on the open market.

She said: "We feel quite strongly that affordable is key, but obviously this is a much-needed school for the local authority, so the trade-off was, to bring the cost down - the site was expensive, construction was expensive - that we could go fully private on the residential units."

4. LocatED says it is is being "kept on its toes"

The company has faced criticism for being secretive; Tes has previously had to fight for information about LocatED, such as the number of temporary sites it is buying, using a series of Freedom of Information requests.

But Ms Newman insisted today that a "robust and independent" investment committee was scrutinising its work. "We've got a board and an investment committee like a private sector company...which means we're absolutely kept on our toes at all times," she said.

5. It bought 50 sites last year, equating to 21,000 school places

There are another "70-odd live commissions", Ms Newman said. She added that she was "pretty pleased" with this result, "given that we were starting from nothing" and were working "from scratch".

But Tes revealed last year that the DfE spent nearly £900,000 on LocatED before it officially existed, and £2.6 million was set aside for LocatED in 2016-17.

Ms Newman was working as the interim managing director of LocatED as far back as July 2015, although the body did not formally launch until February 2017.

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