From 2013: Private Eye on Empty Places at Free Schools

Also in their edition for 19th April – 2nd May 2013, Private Eye carried an article on the number of empty places at the free schools in the government is encouraging being built up and down the country. May of these appear massively undersubscribed. Furthermore, the headmaster of the school, which was at the centre of the Eye’s article, had left his previous job due to incompetence and the massive dissatisfaction of staff and pupils. The Eye’s story ran thus:

Empty Desk Syndrome

A new free school in Durham will open in September in the very buildings of a local comprehensive that is closing due to falling pupil numbers. It’s yet another example of the bizarre policy of opening new schools where there are already far too many school places.

According to the National Union of Teachers, a fifth of the free schools opened so far are in areas which already had empty desks in schools. Millions of pounds of public money have been spent creating a huge surplus of secondary places, while primaries elsewhere in the county remain badly overcrowded.

County education chiefs opposed Durham Free School (DFS) taking over the site of Durham Gilesgate Sports College. Though the city is closing schools because it has so many unfilled places, it will be forced by the Department of Education to hand over the keys at the end of term to provide a temporary home until DFS finds a permanent site. DFS will open with just 60 pupils, but says it plans to have more than 800 eventually, gambling on future housing developments going ahead to the south of the city.

Meanwhile DFS’ headteacher Peter Cantley introduced himself – in a style that will be oddly familiar to Eye readers – with “A Message from the Headteacher…” Although he name-drops the schools where he was an assistant head and deputy head, he’s more reticent about his most recent post: “I previously led a school merger project for the [Department of Education}.”

That merger was between two faith schools, one Church of England, the other Roman Catholic, becoming St. Andrew’s College in Cleethorpes. After 18 months as headteacher, Mr Cantley resigned suddenly in May 2011. Governors said he quite to pursue employment opportunities closer to his come in Cumbria.

Ofsted inspections from after his departure reveal that his headship in Cleethorpes was not altogether happy. In February 2012, inspectors rated the school “inadequate” and blamed some of the school’s problems on “turbulence in senior leadership” following the merger. A follow-up inspection this year says of the new head, who started in December 2011, that staff and students “say that things have got a lot better since she came”.

The evidence from this case certainly bears out other reports that the expansion in the number of free schools is driven by ideology from the Tories, not need on the ground. And the same double standards we’ve come to expect from the Tories are in abundant evidence here. The numbers were too low to support a conventional state school, but for free market Tories, there’s nothing wrong with them for setting up a school outside local authority administration.

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