Radical ‘outdoor’ Norfolk free school plan delayed

Plans for Britain's largest split-site school, providing outdoor learning to potentially hundreds of Norfolk children, have been shelved for at least a year.

Charity The Benjamin Foundation was on the brink of approaching the government with the radical free school plan, which was designed to appeal to children who are turned off by traditional schooling.

So far, the parents of 120 children have expressed interest in signing up to Benjamin's School, along with 31 qualified teachers and 83 volunteers who are keen to help out.

But chief executive Richard Draper said the bid needed 'more time' - meaning the target opening date of September 2012 is now likely to go back 12 months.

Writing on Benjamin's School's Facebook page, he said: 'In order to get our application absolutely right we need more time. Although we have achieved a huge amount in just over a month, since the government introduced a new deadline, we feel that submitting the application now might really risk its ultimate chance of success.

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'Therefore we have made the very difficult decision to postpone our application to the New Schools Network, the organisation responsible for recommending which free schools are approved by government, until spring 2012.'

He added: 'We know that this decision will be a significant disappointment to many of you, and for that I am sincerely sorry.'

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Mr Draper's vision is for Norfolk to be 'one big classroom', with bases all over the county.

Talks are already at an advanced stage for a high-profile base in North Norfolk and a made-to-measure building in Great Yarmouth, with the plan to find other sites in Norwich, and the south and west of Norfolk.

The buildings, which will also include residential areas for children who want to board or who have long distances to travel, would be used as 'launching pads' for the students to get out to farms, fields, nature reserves, theatres and factories to learn.

Mr Draper said he was determined to see the project succeed.

He said: 'Hearing so many personal stories from parents and children made it incredibly clear that Benjamin's School will be life-changing. We have the potential to make an enormous difference to hundreds of young lives throughout Norfolk.

'That's why our application for free school status has to succeed.'

He told people who had responded to the initial survey that he wanted to 'harness their energy and enthusiasm'.

Free schools are funded directly by the government and can be set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities or businesses.

One of the first in the country, Free School Norwich, is set to open in September on Surrey Street in Norwich, catering for the children of parents who work in the city.

? Visit Benjamin's School's page on Facebook or follow @benjaminsschool on Twitter.

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