Call for more information on Beccles Free School bid
11:37 06 July 2012
BECCLES county councillor Mark Bee has called for more information to be made public about a controversial free school that is due to open in Waveney in September.
Mr Bee, who is the leader of Suffolk County Council, has asked for “openness and transparency” after both he and Waveney MP Peter Aldous called on the Seckford Foundation to review their plans for Beccles Free School.
Last week it was revealed that only 37 pupils have so far signed up to attend the high school when it opens in Carlton Colville, prompting both of the Conservative politicians to suggest that the foundation should consider consolidating the school with Saxmundham Free School.
This week both expressed their concerns once more, as Mr Bee called for more information to be made available about the foundation’s bid to the Department for Education.
Mr Bee said: “It’s absolutely vital that more information about the Beccles Free School proposal is made public. It is only then that a proper and meaningful public debate can be had about the future of education provision in Beccles.
“I remain extremely concerned about the viability of Beccles Free School and the planned timing of its opening - and last week’s low admissions revelation only serves to increase my concerns.”
The admission figures were discussed by Waveney District Council’s extraordinary overview and scrutiny committee who have now called on Mr Bee, Mr Aldous and a representative of the Department for Education to speak to them.
Mr Bee and Mr Aldous have both confirmed that they intend to attend when a date is decided, while a spokesman for the Department for Education said they had been in contact with the council to discuss the concerns, adding that they expected pupil recruitment to increase steadily and would publish the funding agreement in the autumn.
Mr Aldous, who made a submission against the bid, said: “On face value the number of 37 would appear to support my position. I understand the free school is in the process of a recruitment drive but those figures support the conclusions I reached and I urge them to consider consolidating to Saxmundham.”
Campaigning group Lowestoft Coalition against the Cuts said they were pleased the committee intended to seek further information from the Department for Education but also appealed for the opportunity to speak and suggested the attendance of a number of other local campaigners, including Sir John Leman High School headteacher Jeremy Rowe.
The news that 37 pupils had signed up for the school drew reaction nationally, with Stephen Twigg, Labour’s shadow education secretary, calling for more information to be released.
He said: “Michael Gove (the education secretary) should explain to Parliament how much money has already been spent on this project, and whether he will allow it to continue if all the places are not filled.”
Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, the largest teachers’ union, added: “The number of pupils taking up places at the free school demonstrates the total lack of interest in a school which was neither wanted, nor needed in the area.”
Graham Watson, director of The Seckford Foundation, said that they remain committed to providing a free school and predicted numbers to increase.
He said: “It is not unusual for a free school to have a slow uptake, moving your child to a new school is a significant decision and only one month has passed since we were given the go-ahead.
“However, we have had 106 expressions of interest from parents. We expect pupil numbers to increase steadily over the next couple of months as parents are reassured that the school will open and that we are offering a real alternative.”
On Tuesday Suffolk County Council’s cabinet will review proposals to change the way home-to-school transport is provided in the parts of the county following the approval given to the free schools.
If implemented, the new plans would mean that in the long-term free transport would be offered to both Sir John Leman High School and Beccles Free School if children met the eligibility criteria – which is living more than two miles away from their nearest school if under eight, or more than three miles if older than eight.