Promised special free schools fail to open

The first schools were due to open from this month. But Schools Week analysis found just one in its permanent building so far

The first schools were due to open from this month. But Schools Week analysis found just one in its permanent building so far


Just one of 37 free schools for some of England’s most vulnerable children has opened in a permanent home two years after they were promised to address a chronic crisis in available spaces.

When the former education secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced the successful bids in 2020, he said the new special and alternative provision schools would “level up opportunities for children from all backgrounds so they can receive a world-class education”.

The first schools were due to open from this month. But Schools Week analysis found just one in its permanent building so far.

Another four are in temporary accommodation until their permanent premises are completed, while others due to open this year have been delayed.

Another six special free schools, approved in 2017, are also still to open. Overall that means 3,400 promised places for children who need specialist provision are still in the pipeline.

Schools Week revealed earlier this year how a crisis in available places is forcing special schools to use cupboards and staffrooms as teaching or therapy spaces.

‘Extra capacity is crucially important’

Professor Brian Lamb, whose 2009 review triggered the SEND reforms of 2014, said providing extra capacity was “crucially important” and needed “urgently”.

“It’s therefore disappointing to see that schools are struggling to get the permanent and bespoke space they need to provide the best quality education.”

Academy trusts say the reasons for delays include government bureaucracy, pandemic knock-ons and planning permission waits.

New Bridge MAT was approved to open a 75-place special school in Rochdale. It currently has no opening date.

Graham Quinn, New Bridge’s chief executive and the chair of Special Schools’ Voice, said the trust had a “significant number of children and young people who have been acknowledged as needing specialist provision.

“We feel that we are letting these children and their families down. Waiting another two or three years is totally unacceptable.”

In Salford, Kings Academy Trust was approved to open Acorn Academy, a 50-place school for children with autism and complex social and emotional mental health.

But Amanda Nicholson, the trust’s chief executive, said land legal issues forced the government to push back back the planned opening this year .

Likewise in Essex, Unity Schools Partnership struggled to get planning permission with building work for its special free school, despite being approved in 2017. It’s now due to open in September 2023.

The Co-op Academies Trust was supposed to open a special school in Leeds next year, but the DfE “faced some challenges in starting construction”.

The trust now plans to open for 60 children in a temporary building next September, before moving to a permanent site a year later.

‘We’ve not opened, but already looking to expand’

Christine Bayliss, a free school expert and former civil servant, said planning permission approval remained “one of the biggest hurdles”.

“The key is having someone on the project team who is familiar with planning processes and who can lobby local stakeholders to get them to actively champion the need for a new school in their community.”

Warren Carratt, the chief executive of Nexus MAT, recently opened a special school in Sheffield that was approved in 2017. He said the free school programme had “taken a long time to deliver what has urgently been needed by local authorities”. In the meantime, SEND demanded changes that presented “real challenges”.

Nic Brindle, the chief executive of the YES Trust, whose school in Halton, Cheshire, was in the cohort of Williamson’s 37 in 2020, said it was delayed by the pandemic and building supply issues. “Place planning is done over three years, but the free school process usually takes longer than three years to get the school open.

“We are already looking at increasing the capacity and it’s not open yet.”

Two AP schools are also at least a year away. George Williams Academy, run by the YMCA in Warwickshire, is delayed until 2024. Its original site in Nuneaton was canned after “access issues”.

Schools Week was only able to establish one school that had opened in its permanent building – Cornerstone, run by Trinitas Academy Trust, in Bexley, Kent.

LocatED, the government company set up to find and buy free school sites, said it could take time to secure sites, particularly in cities where property was “at a premium”.

“This can be as a result of planning requirements imposed by local authorities, or the need to identify high-quality sites that meet the needs of the school while demonstrating best value for the taxpayer.”

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