A village primary that admits 13 pupils a year has been handed the keys to a new school big enough for more than 400 children after winning “the golden ticket”.
North Northamptonshire Council had wanted a free school to move into the multi-million-pound building in Wellingborough as recently as January.
But the government pulled the plug on the scheme after projections showed local primary places, already hit by tumbling birth rates, would be squeezed further by a new school.
Faced with potentially having to mothball the new-build – completed two months ago – councillors voted to hand it over to Wilby Primary School, which has 87 children on its books.
However, Tom Richmond of the EDSK think tank, believes Wilby’s “good fortune” raised questions about how many other free school projects were at risk of collapse as birth rates continued to fall.
‘We will see more free school cases like this’
“So long as the Department for Education tightly grips the free schools programme at a national level, we will no doubt see more examples of significant mismatches between what local areas need and what the DfE has decided to build.”
The building – funded through developer contributions – is on Glenvale Park, an estate in Wellingborough with proposals for 3,000 homes. Plans for the sweeping complex were approved 13 years ago, before North Northamptonshire Council was formed in 2021.
Local authority documents said a review in January found “there would be insufficient demand” to support the primary “opening until September 2025 at the earliest”.
Latest Office for National Statistics figures show the number of babies delivered across North Northamptonshire fell by 10 per cent between 2016 and 2021.
The council papers added that the launch of a new academy at Glenvale Park would create an “over-provision” of primary places that could force an existing school to close “in a worst-case scenario”.
‘Difficult to pre-judge numbers years in advance’
The DfE told the local authority it “would not fund a school where the need for additional places is not supported”.
Jonathan Simons, the head of education consultancy firm Public First, said the decision highlighted “a failure of strategic planning by the council (or its predecessor)”. It highlighted the need for better advance planning around new housing developments and free school bids.
Scott Edwards, North Northamptonshire’s children, families, education and skills lead, said the agreements were in place with the estate housebuilder “well before” the authority was formed.
“The problem when you’re doing section 106 agreements [developer contributions] and building huge new housing estates is they’re done years and years in advance. It’s very difficult to pre-judge numbers.”
Wilby will move into Glenvale Park – three miles from its present site – in September.
School has ‘damp, leaking windows and old boiler’
Lynette Dudley, Wilby’s chair of governors, said the primary hoped to admit 30 reception children next academic year. There would be “a natural increase” when families moved into the estate.
A petition set up by parents said the move threatened “to dismantle the soul of our community”. But Dudley said the school’s current home “doesn’t have the space for additional resources”, with children having to use a “tiny hall” for PE and lunches.
“It’s 175 years old and over the past three or four years repairs have become a nightmare. We’ve got damp, leaking windows and the boiler’s really old…it’s a very old school on a very small site.
“[The move] will mean we can spend money on resources for the classroom. It’s the golden ticket.”
It would also “strengthen” the school’s ability to improve after it was recently rated ‘requires improvement’, down from ‘good’.