Free schools can open in disused DfE buildings

8th October 2010 at 01:00
Gove says Department has 'bigger property portfolio than Blair' which should be put at disposal of education pioneers

The Department for Education is to open new schools in its own buildings under radical plans announced this week by Michael Gove.

In his keynote address at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on Tuesday, the Education Secretary said parents, community groups or charities could open up free schools in disused buildings owned by the Government.

The DfE and its associated quangos has more than 100 buildings that are not being used and Mr Gove said he would welcome any application for a free school to list a departmental building for its site.

He said: "The Department for Education owns or has a lease on more than 100 buildings - it has a bigger property portfolio than Tony Blair.

"At the moment, there is floor space in those buildings lying empty or under-used when every resource we have should be put at the service of children, and from now on it will be."

Mr Gove added: "We will open new academies in the Department for Education's buildings. We will, literally, put great new schools at the heart of everything we do."

A similar move has already been used in the United States, where Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department for Education, set up an "incubator" school of kindergarten pupils in a disused courthouse.

Tweed Courthouse in Lower Manhattan currently houses six classrooms for kindergarten children, to help alleviate overcrowding in the existing state schools.

Author and journalist Toby Young, who is leading a parent group to open a free school in Ealing, west London, next year, has already expressed an interest in Mr Gove's plans.

"We have already found a building, but it is always good to have a plan B," Mr Young said. "I have asked for the list of sites from the Department.

"The site we are looking at is an office building, and I don't see any reason why a school shouldn't be set up in an office once the necessary refurbishment has taken place."

But the announcement was rubbished by shadow schools minister Vernon Coaker, who dismissed the plans as "another ill-thought-out gimmick".

"The promise of opening up a handful of schools in disused education department office blocks will be of no comfort to the 700 communities and over 700,000 children who have seen their promised new school building cancelled by the coalition Government," he said.

"On the day when three local councils launched legal action against the Government to challenge the cancellation of their school building programmes, it is typically heartless that there was not a single mention of Building Schools for the Future from Michael Gove, let alone an apology for the hurt and damage he has caused.

"This is another ill-thought-out gimmick from the Education Secretary to distract attention from the true impact of his policies on some of the most deprived communities in our country."

Mr Coaker's comments were echoed by NUT general secretary Christine Blower, who said that offices were "not the right kind of building" to house schools.

"We do not think they would create the right kind of learning environment for pupils," she said.

"We often said BSF was wasteful and that it needed to be looked at, but we do believe that children deserve purpose-built schools in which to learn."


The big issues

- No pupil will leave school without learning the history of Britain

- British historian Simon Schama will advise the national curriculum review on history

- Headteachers will be given greater powers and clearer guidance on disciplining pupils outside of school "any time, any place, anywhere"

- Free schools will be able to open in disused or under-used buildings owned by the Department for Education and associated quangos.

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