GM quango eager to build schools

1st December 1995 at 00:00
Plans for the country's first purpose-built grant-maintained primary and secondary schools have been condemned by headteachers and local authorities.

The Funding Agency for Schools, the quango which oversees the GM sector finances, wants to construct a primary in Colchester, Essex, and a secondary in Epsom and Ewell in Surrey to tackle shortages of school places. It is the first time the York-based body, which shares responsibility for organising education in 48 local authorities and has control in three, has proposed building a GM school from scratch.

Its proposals have angered headteachers and prompted counter-proposals from Essex and Surrey councils. Both local authorities have to work with the FAS because more than 10 per cent of their secondary pupils are in GM schools. But its plan for Colchester would create the town's first GM primary.

Seven primary heads have criticised the idea, and said parents and children deserved more than to be treated like guinea-pigs.

One head, Richard Moody, of Friar's Grove junior in Colchester, said: "The FAS has no experience of building schools. It has experience of capital building projects, but it has never built a school.

"If a locally-managed school were built (by the LEA), then should parents wish, it could become GM within a few months, but that would be at the wish of parents rather than the FAS."

The FAS proposal emerged after governors dropped a scheme to make The Gilberd, a GM secondary in Colchester, into the country's first "all-through" school for 5 to 16-year-olds.

A damaging internal report by consultants Touche Ross described financial irregularities at the school and a spokesman for the FAS said: "The Gilberd looked at the situation and decided to concentrate on the way things were working at the school." Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, has since appointed two extra governors.

The FAS supported the original proposal for a 5-16 school, but now plans to build the primary, to be opened in April 1997, on the same site. The local authority wants the primary built elsewhere.

Local primary heads claim that housing development means a new school is desperately needed and are backing the LEA plan. They fear the FAS's proposals could mean delays.

In Surrey, both the FAS and local authority have published plans for a new school on the Longmead Road site of the North East Surrey College of Technology.

All secondary schools in the Epsom and Ewell area are grant-maintained, and the county council claims an LEA school would give parents real choice. Marie King-Hele, education chair, said: "It (an LEA school) will be at the heart of the borough and be accountable to the community."

By 1998, the number of 11-year-olds in the area will exceed the places available by an estimated 15 per cent, and analysis by the FAS reveals a shortfall of up to 359 Year 7 places by the turn of the century. In order to relieve the immediate pressure, the governing bodies of four GM schools have each offered to create 30 extra places subject to funding for additional accommodation.

But this would only provide a short-term answer and both the FAS and local authority want the new school to open by September 1997. The county council has asked the Government for Pounds 5 million to create a non-selective 11-18 school which could focus on business and modern European languages. The FAS has also mooted the idea of it becoming a specialist school.

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