Aborted Croydon free school costs taxpayers £82,000

Aborted Croydon free school costs taxpayers £82,000

Four Conservative councillors behind plans to open a free school in south London that were scrapped at a cost to the taxpayer of more than £82,000 have applied to have their business struck off.

The Advance School was set to open in Croydon in September last year, but the proposers pulled the plug, saying they did not have the capacity to continue.

An investigation by Schools Week has revealed that four Conservative councillors from the nearby borough of Wandsworth are directors of the company that proposed the school. The company has never filed any accounts.

A Freedom of Information request submitted by the Labour MP for Croydon North, Steve Reed, revealed the government spend for the proposed three-form entry primary school included £60,402 for technical fees and £22,038 for property and planning costs. Croydon Council confirmed that no planning applications had been submitted in relation to the proposed school.

Russell King, who was the driving force behind the project, has emigrated to Australia and is listed on LinkedIn as a volunteer policy analyst at the Menzies Research Centre, a Canberra thinktank. He was the Conservative cabinet member for strategic planning and transportation at Wandsworth Council, but did not stand for re-election in May 2014.

The four Conservative councillors listed as current directors of the Advance School, who have now applied for the company to be removed from the Companies House register are Kim Caddy, Clare Salier, Steffi Sutters and Sarah McDermott.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said the proposers of the free school “decided they could not give the time commitment to continue with the project and we accepted the withdrawal of the application”.

She said that the technical fees were paid directly to the Education Funding Agency’s project management and technical advice contractor, and that the costs of the work reflected the works completed. She added that when a project was withdrawn, “all future payments of the grant are stopped and we take steps to recover unspent funds”.

Determined attempts by Schools Week to speak to the Wandsworth Conservative group and the individual councillors about the project and its costs were unsuccessful.

The Advance School was one of three free schools due to open in Croydon in September. The other two opened as expected.

A council spokesperson said the government had the “ultimate say on free schools, so Croydon Council was not involved in any of the decisions”.

Once it became clear last summer that Advance School would not open, the council had offered an alternative place to every child due to go there, despite having the highest demand in the country for extra pupil places.

“Last year, we offered 94 per cent of primary parents and 92 per cent of secondary parents a place for their child at one of their top three choices, and over the next three years we are creating around 2,000 extra places in Croydon schools.”

A recent parliamentary written reply said two other free school projects were stopped before opening after they had incurred “unrecoverable” costs.

The Oasis Community School in Walthamstow, north-east London, ran up costs of £138,000, and Chorley Career and Sixth Form Academy in Lancashire cost £129,554 before it was stopped.