Aldous writes to Minister concerned about impact of proposed Beccles Free School

Waveney MP Peter Aldous today wrote to Parliamentary Under Secretary for Schools, Lord Hill, outlining his concerns as to the impact a proposed Free School could have on existing schools in the Beccles area.

Aldous supports the Coalition Government’s policy on Free Schools but argues that these are most suited to deprived areas or where there is a shortage of school places.

Mr Aldous wrote to Lord Hill after a considered analysis of Waveney constituents views, having conducted his own consultation and having received a number of representations from local people.

Peter has taken his concerns to Lord Hill during the process of the Seckford Foundation applying to set up a Free School in Beccles to ensure that the local circumstances and pupils and parents interests are centre stage when a decision is made.

Peter wrote to Lord Hill in October 2011 and followed this up with a telephone conversation in November, advising him that whilst he supported the ethos and policies behind Free Schools he had concerns including whether there was sufficient demand and enough pupils for both the Free School and the existing Sir John Leman High School.

Ensuring his concerns were heard, Peter wrote to Lord Hill in January and met the Minister in February to talk through his worries that the proposal could have an adverse impact on other schools and education establishments in the Waveney area.

In coming to a final decision on whether the Department of Education should enter into a funding agreement with the Seckford Foundation Peter has argued that it is essential for the Department for Education to be fully aware of the changes that are currently taking place in the provision of education in the Waveney area.

These include:

  • A new High School at Pakefield resulting in a reduction in size of the Sir John Leman High School’s catchment area and a potential over capacity.
  • A move from a three tier to a two tier system of education has taken place with middle schools being abolished.
  • A new sixth form college in Lowestoft.
  • The Sir John Leman High School, Bungay High School and East Point Academies having become academies.

Aldous argues in his letter to Lord Hill that:

“These changes are both challenging and exciting and provide an opportunity to significantly improve education opportunities in the Waveney area. There is a strong argument that a period of consolidation should now take place to ensure that the new arrangements are properly embedded and given every opportunity to succeed.”

Mr Aldous based his decision on a number of criteria relating to the establishment of free schools, arguing that, the decision must be based on a consideration of:

Impact of a free school on existing education establishments, demand and deprivation:

Having studied Ofsted inspection reports for the Sir John Leman High School from 2006, 2009 and 2011 Peter argues that as the School is just one mile from the proposed Beccles Free School it would be most affected by any reduction in pupils which could also threaten the viability of the sixth form and could have a knock on effect to the North Suffolk Skills Centre at Halesworth.

In carrying out his own consultation, Peter received 73 responses, 9 supporting the Free School and 64 opposed. He comments “that there is a clear majority whose preference is to continue to support and to avoid undermining the Sir John Leman High School which has been part of the Beccles community for several centuries.”

Peter also notes in his letter that:

“Half the Free Schools opened in 2011 are located in the 30% most deprived communities in the country, whilst analysis of the current proposed schools due to open in 2012 reveals that more than 90% of the applicants are either in areas that are deprived or crying out for places. Neither is the case in this instance and thus consideration should be given as to whether Beccles is an appropriate location for a Free School and whether a more appropriate policy to pursue here would be to concentrate efforts and resources on the existing high school.”

Peter continues, arguing that financial considerations should be foremost in the Department’s decision:

“At a time of financial austerity, it does seem perverse to many to be spending money on refurbishing two schools (one for only a temporary 2 year period) for use by the Free School when there is already an over capacity of high school places......In my opinion, it is more appropriate to concentrate resources on tackling...challenges that the existing schools currently face, rather than undertaking further projects.”

Mr Aldous concludes that:

“Having considered all relevant factors, it is my conclusion that the Department for Education should not enter a funding agreement with the Seckford Foundation. This was my initial view back in October and it has been reinforced by subsequent events and the representations that have been made to me.”

Commenting on his letter to Lord Hill Peter notes that:

“Whilst free schools are an excellent way of bringing choice for parents and pupils into our education system, in this instance a new school could damage existing schools.”

Contact Peter Aldous MP

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