Nicky Morgan has withdrawn permission for a Suffolk free school after the county council launched a legal challenge, leading to a government source admitting the free school approval process still needs “kinks working out”.
The Department for Education (DfE) gave approval in March for Bury St Edmunds All-Through Trust (BSEATT) to open a middle free school in September, but within the last 48 hours has reneged after mounting pressure from local councillors, headteachers and the community.
Suffolk County Council was said to be “incensed” by the decision to approve the new middle school, as the town, Bury St Edmunds, was the last area in the county to move from a middle school system to one with just primary and secondary schools.
Last year, Schools Week reported how delays in free schools opening was costing the taxpayer £12 million.
The source said the department was “keen to engage with the local authority” when there is a conflict over an approval.
The council had submitted a legal challenge to the decision by Nicky Morgan, the education secretary.
The source added: “We are going to look for a solution to the proposal. It is absolutely right that approval was given to an application from a great trust, with a great vision, that is raising standards in the town.
“We are sympathetic of the local authority’s desire to move from a three tier to two tier system. We are conscious of the changes there and how that would cause them issues.”
He said the DfE would now work with the council and the academy trust to submit another plan “in the future”.
When asked why the local authority’s views were not considered at the time approval was given, the source said opposition was “not as clear” as now.
He said the government is “conscious of working more with local authorities” and admitted it was still “working out the kinks” in its free school process.
Earlier this week, it was revealed how the government was facing a high court battle about its decision to give permission to Khalsa Secondary Academy, a free school, to remain on a site in a Buckinghamshire village. The parish and district councils, and the independent planning inspectorate, had refused planning permission.
The decision by the DfE has been welcomed by councillors and headteachers in Suffolk who were campaigning against the new school.
He added: “The development of this new free middle school would have jeopardised and undermined our efforts to move towards a two tier education system for the town, which we have successfully been working towards over the last few years with great support and encouragement from many local schools throughout the Bury area.”
From September, the rest of the town’s primary and secondary schools will expand their cohorts in the final phase of removing middle schools from the county’s education system.
Martin Campbell, spokesperson for the Suffolk Coalition Opposed to Free Schools, said: “I am very glad that the DfE has seen sense and decided to abandon plans to open a damaging and destructive school in Bury St Edmunds, that is in a delicate stage of reform and improvement of its education system.”
Sue Herriott, chair of Bury School Partnership said: “The original decision to create an additional middle school was baffling. It undermined our long-standing commitment to raising standards through strong primary provision.”
BSEATT also plans to open a technical academy for 14 to 19 year olds in the town, and last month denied this would create a form of “streaming” its pupils in year 9.
The trust’s application for a new middle school to open in September 2017 is still under consideration from the DfE.
In a statement, Richard Fletcher, BSEATT chair, said: “The application for 2017 still remains under consideration by the DfE. There were over 300 responses to the recent consultation and these were roughly 10 to 1 in favour of our plans. We therefore look forward to working with the DfE and Suffolk County Council to ensure that the trust has enough places to meet parental demand.”