‘Unseemly rush’ leaves many free schools stuck in limbo

11th November 2016 at 00:00
Harris Invictus Academy has been based in temporary classrooms since opening in 2014
Concerns raised as figures reveal a third of schools are based in temporary accommodation

Nearly a third of free schools are operating from interim sites, new figures reveal, leading to concerns about the high number of children being taught in temporary classrooms.

There are 110 free schools currently using temporary accommodation for their lessons, according to Parliamentary figures released last week. This amounts to nearly a third of the 344 free schools listed on the Department for Education’s website as being open.

A TES analysis of the Ofsted reports that must be completed before free schools open also reveals that a significant number have been in temporary accommodation for at least two years longer than planned.

The high number of free schools yet to find or move into a permanent home has come to light as the government presses on with a target to open 500 by 2020.

'We have concerns about whether temporary accommodation is up to standard for school facilities'

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, warned of the effects of running lessons in buildings that had not been designed to function as schools. “We have concerns about whether temporary accommodation would provide access for disabled children and staff, [and] whether they are up to standard for school facilities – for example, ventilation or heating,” Dr Bousted said.

Other concerns included whether there would be “sufficient toilets and separate toilets for staff and children…outside space for children to play and exercise [and] facilities for science labs [and] suitable for music lessons”, she added.

The number of free schools in temporary accommodation is revealed in a Parliamentary answer by children’s minister Edward Timpson.

He writes: “The department ensures that all temporary accommodation is safe and suitable for educational purposes.

“Opening free schools in temporary accommodation has ensured that we have been able to meet a need for places and support free school trusts to open much-needed new schools at the earliest opportunity.”

But Labour shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: “The number of free schools in temporary accommodation shows that they are being set up in an unseemly rush, with little thought or proper planning.

“Instead of trying to reach a completely arbitrary target of 500 by 2020, the government should concentrate on improving the education of the vast majority of children in our schools.”


Local objections

A TES analysis of the latest published set of Ofsted “pre-registration” reports on free schools reveals that at least 10 will be on temporary sites for at least two years longer than was originally expected. Planning disputes are the main reason for the delays.

For example, the early Ofsted report for Braywick Court School in Maidenhead says: “For the first year, the school premises will be the former Winbury Preparatory School, but these premises will later be extended on to the site of the current Braywick Nature Centre.”

The temporary site had no disabled toilets for pupils, although Ofsted inspectors noted: “the indications are that the learning areas will be spacious”.

However, the school had to withdraw a planning application for its permanent building amid local opposition, and new plans were approved in July for a different site. It is now hoped the new school will be ready next year.

The Heights Primary School in Reading was due to occupy its current site, which is outside its catchment area, until August 2016. It hoped to move to a new site on a nearby playing field, but a campaign against the proposal was launched by local residents, and September 2018 now looks like the earliest date that a permanent site will be ready.

Free school pioneer Toby Young, recently appointed the director of free schools charity the New Schools Network, said: “Finding a permanent site is the most difficult part of setting up a new school, something I know from my own experience.

“We need to overcome these challenges because there will be need for 450,000 more school places between now and 2020.”

A property company called LocatED has been set up by the DfE to manage a £2 billion fund for buying land for free schools.

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