Battle lines drawn on Beccles Free School bid

The battle lines were drawn on the future of education in Beccles this week as a public consultation meeting was held into a proposed free school.

Parents, students and residents met at Hungate Church Hall on Tuesday night as The Seckford Foundation discussed their proposal to open a free school in September.

The foundation, which runs Woodbridge School, is bidding to open a high school at Carlton Colville Primary School in September, before moving to Beccles Middle School two years later.

The suitability of the primary school building and the potential disruption of moving between the schools were among the issues raised by those opposing the bid as members of the public were given a chance to have their say as part of the proposals' formal process.

Addressing the assembled audience, Graham Watson, director of the Seckford Foundation, said: 'It was people from the community that came to us to ask if we would help with their bid. We thought about it and decided yes, we would help the community and put in the bid together.'

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Stephen Cole, headmaster at Woodbridge School, added: 'This is not something out of my dream, as to what I think a school should be. This is a response to the community of Beccles and its surrounding villages.'

Mr Cole said that the proposed school would be 'unashamedly academic', with Year 7s focusing on maths and English for half of their curriculum.

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He said that Years 8 and 9 would be in mixed tutor groups in the lower school, and Years 10 and 11 would be the same as the upper school.

Graeme Bruce, director of studies at Woodbridge, added that the first appointment would be the head teacher, followed by two deputies and then a specialist in educational needs.

When questions were invited, parent Ian Goodyear, of Beccles, voiced concerns about the potential disruption to children when the school moves from Carlton Colville to Beccles, calling it a 'shabby compromise', while another local resident John Rutter said the students would be 'guinea pigs'.

Sir John Leman High School head teacher Jeremy Rowe raised concerns that a newly appointed head teacher would not have time to start work before the pupils, while the school's student council vice chair James Watson said he was worried about money being taken away from his school.

Residents from Carlton Colville also raised issues about traffic problems around the school, while Sonia Barker, Waveney District Councillor for Pakefield, also asked if there would be a meeting in Carlton Colville.

The meeting was led by independent adjudicator Rob Cawley, who was appointed by Cambridge Education, the team employed by the Department for Education to see if the bid is viable.

Mr Cawley said: 'Once the consultation has finished the outcomes will be sent to the Department For Education for them to make a decision if the free school goes ahead.

'Whether it will be going ahead will be on the strength of its argument rather than the volume for and against.'

The project team noted every question and recorded that there were 39 people in support, 28 against and 16 undecided on the free school. Five people declined to answer.

A questionnaire was also given out giving people the chance to say what they thought of the proposal, why, if they thought the free school would impact on other local schools and how it could ensure it is part of the community.

Speaking after the meeting, members of the steering group who had approached the Seckford Foundation about putting in the bid said they were happy with how everything was progressing although the temporary move to Carlton Colville was not what they would have wished.

Melanie Tucker said: 'I think there has been a groundswell of positive opinion for the establishment of free schools and positive comments from parents who want to see a choice.'

Aidan McHugh added that the consultation was an important process to get a feel for what parents wanted, so they could respond to that.

Also outside the meeting was a group of parents compiling signatures against the free school and handing out a 'Stop the Beccles Free School Fiasco' leaflet.

There will be further drop in events on Friday, February 3 at Morrisons between 9am and 12.30pm, and Beccles Library between 1 and 5pm.

The consultation concludes on February 28, when the Department for Education will decide if the school will go ahead based on the strength of the argument.

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