The DfE, it turns out, must have lots of money after all. As it has apparently approved the opening of two Seckford free schools in Suffolk - in Beccles and in Saxmundham.
As has been shown many times on this site before, there is overwhelming opposition for these schools in the area - in Beccles in particular, proving the Free School consultation process to be nothing but a paper exercise. These schools aren't needed. Suffolk are already mid-way through a schools reorganisation which these new schools are disrupting totally. The educational offer at these schools is excessively narrow and offers nothing (unashamedly!) for those pupils who don't feel happy in a solely academic environment. The establishment of these new schools is clearly to the detriment of existing schools as there just aren't the numbers of pupils to go around in this ageing population, and the County Council has announced that it cannot continue to provide transport as it does now to catchment schools in these areas, because the DfE insists that it must provide transport to the free schools. In the case of Beccles, the Tory leader of the council and the Tory MP even opposed it. The headteacher-designate of Saxmundham resigned this week even before the school got approval. And to cap it all, the Seckford Foundation has been derided widely for its inability to engage in meaningful consultation or debate locally or indeed to answer basic questions about its offer.
Nothing in these bids offers an interesting education proposal, a provider in whom we can be confident, or an opportunity to meet rising demand for school places. Aren't these requirements of free school applications? Surely, in the number of proposals received by the DfE, there were at least some that met the need for increasing capacity in other areas of the country, and didn't require funding to support them opening with numbers expected to be a third of their PAN? So much for austerity.
The Seckford schools do of course represent the opportunity for Michael Gove to introduce a competitive market and an unashamedly old-fashioned education - without the inconvenience experienced in other areas of there being no available spare school buildings with which to conduct his experiments. If the Suffolk situation shows anything, it is that planning to meet educational demand in a way which is cost-effective to the pupil and the taxpayer, and takes account of local opinion, is no longer on the DfE's agenda. Suffolk County Council have been complicit in all this, as it would not have taken much to stand up and say "Please spend the money on free schools where more schools are actually needed". But they didn't, sadly, and their ability to plan for the needs of the children in this county will be lessened all the more because of it.
The Seckford Foundation have tucked away the announcement on the free schools page of their website, and the regional newspaper (EADT) has run the story. But there's nothing on the DfE website. Are the DfE perhaps embarrassed to be seen, at this time of cuts, spending millions on unproven schools no-one needs just because they can?