A bad day for competition as rivals scrap over site
When Sir John Leman High, a newly converted academy in Suffolk, was asked to double in size to accommodate a county-wide reorganisation of schools, it duly obliged.
But, despite years of planning, the school will now be unable to house its new pupils after the building it had been promised was given to a free school. In a row that goes to the heart of the Government's policies on competition, the free school has been given the nod even though it could risk the long-term future of its high-performing neighbour.
Under Suffolk County Council's plans, Beccles Middle School was to close, with its pupils transferring to Sir John Leman High. The move met with significant opposition from parents at the middle school, prompting them to submit a bid to open a free school for 11 to 16-year-olds on the same site. The proposal was approved by education secretary Michael Gove last month, with an opening date set for next September.
But the decision could have serious ramifications for Sir John Leman High. In the short-term, headteacher Jeremy Rowe has to work out where to place extra pupils who join his academy. In the long-term, he is facing up to the school's possible closure.
"If the building is given to the new Beccles Free School, some of its pupils will still come to my school in Years 7, 8 and 9, so where do I put my new intake of students?" he asked. "I have nowhere to put them without that building, which was promised to me two years ago. I may as well drop them off at the Department for Education and let them deal with it."
The second prospect, however, is potentially far graver for Mr Rowe. Beccles is a small market town with a population of 9,000 and an expectation of falling student numbers. A new secondary school in the town could be fatal for the academy.
"If two schools were to open, both would be half empty or one would be almost completely empty and would have to close," Mr Rowe said. "Closing a school means spending more money in redundancy pay to teachers, not to mention the price paid by the pupils and their education," he added.
Free schools, arguably the Conservatives' only tangible example of the Big Society in action, have been introduced to inject greater choice into the system, allowing parents to open their own schools if they are not happy with what is on offer. But Sir John Leman High is successful. Its most recent Ofsted report described it as "good with outstanding features", and its GCSE results place it in the top 25 per cent of schools in the country.
Councillor Graham Newman said he was all too aware of the potential upheaval the free school could create. "Suffolk council is not against free schools in any way ... but we have a significant issue here that we will have to resolve," he said. "I can understand the parents are keen to see their free school happen, especially with the support they have, but it could have a serious impact on a school with a very good reputation."
Both the Beccles Free School and the Saxmundham Free School, also in Suffolk, are backed by the Seckford Foundation. The 400-year-old education charity is also behind the #163;24,000-a-year independent Woodbridge School in the south of the county. Mr Gove has made no secret of his desire for more private-school providers to enter the state system, and the offer from the Seckford Foundation to back two free-school bids has obvious appeal.
Graham Watson, director of the Seckford Foundation, told TES that the Beccles Free School was what the local community wanted. "While we understand some people may have concerns about this change, we see it as a clear opportunity to respond to a demand in the community for choice," he said.
A DfE spokeswoman said there was no reason why a free school should not be set up in the same area as an academy. "Evidence suggests that opening a free school in an area in which there is already an academy will help to drive up standards," she said. "This is one of the programme's key aims - that by opening up new good schools, all local schools will be encouraged to raise their standards."
Although there will be resentment toward Mr Gove's decision, it appears unlikely that the education secretary will be turned. "Let the market decide" has been his mantra; now it's up to the two schools to fight it out.
55 new free schools will open next year, adding to the 24 that opened in September. A further eight had already been approved to open for the start of the 2012 academic year.
87 free schools will be open by next September. But the New Schools Network, which advises those who want to set them up, has criticised Michael Gove for approving "too few".