New free schools in Norfolk get go-ahead, as education secretary backs county MPs in bid to raise aspirations

Education secretary Michael Gove has given the go-ahead for two new free schools in Norfolk - and told MPs he backs their bid to raise aspirations among young people.

The minister's department has given the go-ahead for two proposed free schools in the county to open next September, a move welcomed by MPs who say vital action is needed to raise the aspirations of Norfolk's schoolchildren.

The free schools announcement yesterday - which saw the Norwich-based Sir Isaac Newton Free School and the Thetford Free School among 102 given approval- came days after two of the county's MPs raised their concerns with the education secretary over why Norfolk lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to youngsters achieving their dreams.

At the meeting, with South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss and Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, Mr Gove said he would like to see key players in the area's education sector develop a programme to encourage greater achievement.

The MPs had raised concerns about levels of aspiration in Norfolk after a report called Frustration to Aspiration revealed parts of Norfolk were at the foot of the table when it came to obstacles faced by youngsters hoping to gain top qualifications, pursue fulfilling careers and own their own homes.

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Mr Freeman said: 'Mr Gove has agreed to come back and support us in putting together a project to dramatically re-frame aspiration. We will be working with the county council and other partners about how we can put that together.'

The creation of free schools is seen by the government as one way to improve achievement and standards, although they have proved controversial.

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The Free School Norwich, which opened last year. is the only one in the county so far, but yesterday's announcement means two more could open in little more than a year.

The Sir Isaac Newton Free School is the brainchild of Rachel de Souza, principal of Costessey's Ormiston Victory Academy and Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital chairman David Prior.

It would be a sixth form catering for at least 100 students aged 16 to 19 years old from across Norfolk and north Suffolk.

The curriculum would focus strongly on science and maths – with students needing to get A*s, As and Bs at GCSE in their chosen disciplines to gain a place – with other subjects also available.

Mrs de Souza said: 'The aim of the school is to offer the best maths and science teaching in the country and this is the significant announcement we were waiting for.

'It has been a huge amount of hard work to get to this point and we still have to hear about the funding, but this means we are on track.

'The Department for Education wants us to be open by September 2013, so we're not resting on our laurels as there is a lot of work yet to do.'

A location for the school has yet to be revealed.

The Thetford Free School was also on the government's list, to the delight of headteacher designate Nico Dobben.

The school, which would cater for pupils with learning difficulties or behavioural problems, succeeded at the second attempt.

Mr Dobben said the aim was to open with 20 pupils in September next year, rising to 40 the following year.

'I think it will give a small group of children, who at the moment don't have a future or access to education, a real chance,' he said.

'This is really only the beginning of a long process and though we've been given the go-ahead we have to prove we're the right people to do it – it's fantastic news.'

He added a location had not yet been decided, but talks were ongoing over three possible options in the town.

MP Ms Truss welcomed the announcements and said, of the Sir Isaac Newton Free School: 'Taking students from across the county, its curriculum will go beyond A-level and is supported by academics from Cambridge University – helping to build up the next generation of engineers, mathematicians and scientists.'

However, free schools, which are set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities, businesses, universities, trusts, religious or voluntary groups, but funded directly by central government, have proved controversial.

Prime minister David Cameron yesterday hailed free schools for offering 'real quality, real choice for parents' and said almost all of them are over subscribed.

But the Beccles Free School in Suffolk sparked controversy last month when it emerged it had received just 37 applications for 162 places when it opens this September, although the organisation behind it yesterday said the number had increased.

And Chris Keates, the general secretary of teaching union NASUWT, said: 'Despite the spin put on this announcement by Downing Street, this is not a good news story.

'Free schools are opened at the expense of neighbouring schools, whose already diminishing budgets will be top-sliced to fund them.'

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