Free school pulls the plug as site search fails

A “chaotic” search for free school sites in a north London borough has ended with a proposed school for 700 pupils folding and another forced to delay opening for a year.

Gateway Academy and Gladstone School were both supposed to open in Brent in September last year, but both have struggled to find suitable sites – a situation that local campaigners and politicians call “chaotic” and a “shambles”.

Gateway, which planned to educate 700 11 to 18-year-olds, decided to fold rather than defer for a second year and raise the hopes of parents only “to see the school deferred again”.

Gladstone now hopes to welcome its first pupils on a temporary site in September 2016.

Johnny Kyriacou, headteacher-designate at Gateway, said in a statement: “There are a number of challenges to securing a building in Brent and that includes rising land prices and competition against developers for all available land, which means the Department for Education (DfE) is not able to compete financially. That is not to say it is impossible but it seems very unlikely.”

He said significant bids for land from the Education Funding Agency were turned down, including a property developer pulling out at the last minute.

“The trustees felt that to go on for another year and campaign to recruit students without a building would not be in the best interests of the local community,” he said.

Paul Phillips was appointed Gladstone’s principal-designate in January 2014. The job was advertised with a salary of between £78,000 and £88,000. His LinkedIn profile shows he is also a specialist leader of education at the Academies Enterprise Trust.

Gateway employed Mr Kyriacou and a deputy head.

Attempts by campaigners to find out how much has been spent at both schools – before a pupil has walked through the doors – have proved fruitless.

In response to a Freedom of Information request on the costs, the DfE said it did not hold the information “prior to deferral”. It said that it did publish the amount of money spent by free schools before opening, but only after they had actually opened.

New secondary free schools get a pre-opening grant of £300,000 to cover costs, including staff salaries. When a project is cancelled, the unspent funds are returned to the DfE.

Additional cash can also be given to deferred schools on a case-by-case basis, but the DfE does not publish the information.

One free school that did open in Brent in 2014 was Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela Community School, originally planned for south London. The school moved into a building in Wembley Park in September after the DfE couldn’t find a site in Wandsworth.

Local teaching unions questioned the need for another secondary school when the borough faces a shortage of primary places.

The pressure to find suitable sites in the borough has now stepped up after the DfE’s approval last September for One Degree Academy, which aims to provide 420 primary and 300 secondary places. The DfE continues to work with both One Degree and Gladstone on securing sites.