Rejected: Big Society group's free-school bid

26th August 2011 at 01:00
Gove's department refuses application from independent praised by David Cameron

A school praised by David Cameron for its success in teaching pupils with severe behavioural problems has been rejected in its bid to join the free-schools programme.

The independent St Paul's school in Balsall Heath - which is run by a charity and mostly funded by Birmingham City Council - applied to switch to the state sector under the Coalition's flagship education policy.

Its bid to become a free school and expand provision was supported by the council and 47 mainstream state schools, but the Department for Education turned it down.

Charity bosses say they are dumbfounded by the decision as they thought the school was an ideal candidate for the scheme.

St Paul's, founded in 1972, is part of a charitable project in a deprived community which was hailed by education secretary Michael Gove as the inspiration for the prime minister's Big Society idea after residents worked together to drive out crime and improve education.

The school caters for around 60 pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties, most of whom have been excluded from mainstream schools for violence.

Last year, 77 per cent of pupils achieved five GCSEs at A*-G, compared with an average in England's "alternative provision" schools of just 15.9 per cent.

Prime minister David Cameron has visited St Paul's twice and at least six other current minsters including Mr Gove and universities minister David Willetts have also been to see its work.

But its future is under threat amid fears the council could be forced to cut funding for the 50 places it currently finances.

Dr Anita Halliday, chief executive of the St Paul's Community Development Trust, said the politicians had been full of praise for the school and that environment secretary and local MP Caroline Spelman had offered to help with an earlier plan to become an academy.

"I can't understand it," Dr Halliday told The TES. "We've been an extremely successful school for almost 40 years where others have failed.

"Pupils come to us from the most difficult backgrounds and are only with us an average two years. The staff do heroics to get them to calm down and believe in themselves.

"We've got fantastic Ofsted reports and wonderful exam results. I really am struggling to imagine some alternative provision that is better than us.

"It's not just me saying that, it's the local authority, the schools that refer to us and the parents. You would have thought we'd be just what the Government is looking for."

Chair of governors Patrick Wing said: "It was a great application, setting out a fantastic track record, which was supported by about 50 other schools.

"But we received what was, to be plain, a perfunctory letter that suggested to us that our application had not been read."

In its rejection letter, a DfE official praised St Paul's for the "clearly focused vision and target group", but said "in some key areas, your application was not as strong as others" and added there was not enough detail about success measures, plans for reintegration into mainstream education, and the expertise of trustees.

St Paul's said much of the "missing" information was in fact included in the original application and accused officials of not reading documents thoroughly.

A spokesman for the DfE said: "There are plenty of very passionate and innovative projects being put forward, but no application is a shoe-in. This is a competitive process and we set out clear criteria which applicants have to address within the set deadlines - it would be completely unfair to consider retrospective information not included in the original bid."


The hopefuls

The DfE received 281 free-school applications in the current round, which closed on 15 June. They included 227 proposals for mainstream schools, 34 for alternative provision (such as pupil referral units) and 20 for schools for children with special educational needs. The number that were successful has not yet been revealed.

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