21 for, 3,000 against - but free school will go ahead
Opponents of one of the country's most controversial free school proposals have vowed to appeal against the decision by ministers to approve the plans, describing it as an "extraordinary waste of public money".
Beccles Free School in Suffolk was finally approved by the Department for Education at the end of May after a long and, its biggest critics say, "grubby" battle was fought to prevent the school from opening its doors in September.
Schools minister Lord Hill gave the proposed secondary the green light despite an official consultation into its viability showing that it was supported by just 21 parents in the area.
Jeremy Rowe, headteacher of Sir John Leman High School, a recently converted academy that will be directly affected by the school opening, labelled the decision a "tragedy", pointing to a petition signed by more than 3,000 people as proof that Beccles Free School was not wanted locally.
"It's an extraordinary decision, especially when you consider the weight of public opposition to the free school," Mr Rowe said. "Even the local Tory MP came out against it. Just 21 parents have brought this school into being, and they have done so because it is a Tory pet project."
Mr Rowe claimed it would be "impossible" for two secondaries to be successful in a town with a population of just 9,000, adding that the creation of a new free school could mean Sir John Leman will be forced to reconsider its curriculum.
"There is no way that we will be able to maintain everything we offer as a school if another opens up around the corner," the head said. "It's an absolute tragedy. We will appeal the decision, but people now have little faith that they will be successful. After all, it is the government that they are fighting against, and they are despairing over it."
The conflict over the Beccles proposal has become increasingly bitter since the plans were put forward last year by parents backed by private school charity the Seckford Foundation.
At the very start of the application, the bid team proposed to establish the Beccles Free School in buildings already promised to Sir John Leman - a move that was heavily opposed.
But the row grew even more heated earlier this year after it transpired that the man appointed to act as an independent adjudicator as part of the public consultation on the free school's viability was later hired as the school's executive principal.
Commenting on the fact that just 21 parents supported the plans in the consultation, the DfE said that the questionnaire was "just one way" in which people were able to contribute their views, adding that it felt the school would "improve choice for parents in the community".
"All Free School groups must give evidence of demand for their proposed school, in order to be approved," a DfE spokesperson said. "Parents also contacted Suffolk County Council and the Seckford Foundation to register expressions of interest."
The decision was heavily criticised by the NUT, which said that free schools are "causing havoc" in the education system. Christine Blower, NUT general secretary, added that the decision called into "serious doubt" the process by which education secretary Michael Gove exercises his legal responsibility to take into account the impact of any new school on its neighbours.
"There is no shortage of secondary school places and a new school opening up could succeed only by undermining the excellent Sir John Leman High School," Ms Blower said.
Graham Watson, director of the Seckford Foundation, said: "We were pleased to receive approval from the government ... The new school will cater for all pupils and will provide a real alternative to parents for the future education of their children."
AS IT HAPPENED
February 2011 - Beccles Free School application submitted
October 2011 - the Department for Education gives the school the nod
November 2011 - a row breaks out over the free school site
January 2012 - Sir John Leman High School wins the fight to use the proposed site for two years
January 2012 - a consultation is launched into the viability of Beccles Free School after the site move
April 2012 - the man who refereed the public consultation is hired as Beccles' executive principal
May 2012 - the government approves Beccles Free School for a second time
June 2012 - opponents, led by Sir John Leman head Jeremy Rowe, vow to appeal.