Primary free school delay increases places pressure

A Kent primary school has become the first of next year’s free school cohort to be delayed over site problems.

The decision to delay Bishop Chavasse Primary Free School comes less than 12 months after Kent County Council was given nearly £100m of government funds to meet a “significant increase” in demand for places.

It is one of seven new primary schools planned to open in the county to meet the anticipated 15,000 extra primary places needed in the next five years.

But the school will now open 12 months later than planned in September 2017 – heaping more pressure on other schools to plug the places gap this September.

Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling, said he and all the school’s supporters are “deeply frustrated”.

“The school will fill an important need in Tonbridge and is now closer to opening than it has ever been.”

But he added: “It is important for the future prosperity of the school that it is able to operate on one site, rather than spending a year in a temporary location beforehand.”

The government handed the council £92m of basic needs funding to deal with the influx last year – the most given to any council – after councillors expressed “serious concerns” over allocations for the coming two years.

Ian Bauckham, executive headteacher of school sponsor Bennett Memorial Diocesan School, said he was “well aware of how much the new school is needed”, but claimed the decision to delay will be the “best in the long term”.

Schools Week revealed in July last year that more than 50 free schools had postponed opening in the previous two years – mostly over issues with finding a suitable site.

The Department for Education (DfE) has pointed out that most free schools have opened on schedule, but has faced calls to inform parents about future delays before national offer day.

The trust had announced in November it was “very close” to securing a site, only to see further problems with finalising the deal.

Mr Bauckham said the postponement has been announced now to “give certainty to parents seeking primary places for 2016”.

The school will provide 420 places with two forms of entry taking sixty pupils each.

The trust hopes to announce “very soon” where it will be based before construction can start for the September 2017 opening.

Roger Gough, cabinet member for education at Kent County Council, told Schools Week contingency plans were already in place for a nearby school to temporarily expand to take on the extra pupils.

He said: “We are in advanced discussions and are pretty confident it will go ahead.”

Schools Week revealed last year that the DfE is considering pre-emptively buying sites for schools in areas with a shortfall of places to cut out the delays in opening.

Linda Kennedy, from the DfE’s free schools strategy team, said this means the department would be “ready to go” when an application comes in and said schools could open within a year.

A DfE spokesperson said: “While the vast majority of free schools open on schedule, there have been rare instances where we have agreed with a school’s proposers that it should open later than originally planned.

“In each case we make sure the school proposers notify the parents at the earliest opportunity. We continue to work with Bishop Chavasse to secure a permanent site as soon as possible.”

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  1. Local authorities are constrained by the requirement for all new schools to be free schools. If LAs could commission and build their own schools they could purchase suitable land or use land they already own. The Education Funding Agency is responsible for working with free school proposers to find suitable sites not the LA. And final decisions about free school proposals rests with the Secretary of State for Education. That’s assuming, of course, the LA can find a group willing to set up a free school. This may be difficult in ‘challenging’ areas where there is a need for more places.