Lord Hill

New chapter in Beccles Free School row

Friday, January 4, 2013
11.00 AM

A new row has erupted about Waveney’s first free school after the government minister who controversially gave it the go-ahead said it was becoming “increasingly popular” with parents.

Lord Hill of Oareford approved Beccles Free School last May despite fierce opposition from local campaigners, head teachers and senior politicians.

At that time there were only 37 applications for places, but now he has spoken of his delight that it has grown to have 102 pupils on its books – meaning more than a third of its places remain unfilled.

Lord Hill, parliamentary under secretary of state for schools, said: “I am delighted that since Beccles Free School opened in September and parents have been able to see first hand the sort of secondary education being offered, the numbers have climbed steadily. There are now 102 pupils on roll. As a small secondary school with a focus on academic subjects, Beccles offers parents a choice that seems to be increasingly popular.”

However, the minister’s comments prompted new demands that the Department for Education (DfE) publish how much it cost to set to up the school, which has a capacity of 162 pupils on its current site in Carlton Colville, near Lowestoft.

Peter Byatt, NUT secretary for the Lowestoft area and Waveney councillor for Pakefield, said: “I condemn the DfE’s continued refusal to reveal the details of the school’s funding, broken down into building costs, staffing and provision of free uniforms, meals and other items to pupils.

“This is public money, and at a time of national belt-tightening we are entitled to transparency.

“No-one would dispute the fact that our children deserve the best education possible, but by diverting funds into this school’s away from high schools in order to ensure small class sizes in morally wrong.”

It was believed the funding agreement would be released in the autumn of 2012, but a DfE spokesman said this week that it will publish the funding for all 2012 free schools “shortly”.

He said: “Details of the capital funding each school received will be published when contracts for site acquisition and renovation are finalised, and therefore the cost of the project is no longer commercially sensitive.”

Parents wanting to set up a free school turned to the Woodbridge-based Seckford Foundation for help, but their plan prompted fierce objections with Conservative MP for Waveney Peter Aldous and the leader of the Tory-controlled county council, Mark Bee, who represents Beccles, speaking out against it.

But Lord Hill opted to approve the school, which is outside local authority control.

The school currently accommodates Years 7-9 but when it relocates to the former Beccles Middle School next year it will have space for 540 students from Years 7-11.