Concerns over free school plans for Carlton Colville

CONTROVERSIAL plans to set up Waveney's first free school sparked a major row this week amid claims that it would 'disrupt' Lowestoft's education system and prove a waste of public money.

In a surprise proposal, the group behind Beccles Free School revealed on Monday that it was considering using the site of Carlton Colville Primary School as a temporary home for two years, for up to 150 students.

But the proposals have prompted concerns that the new school could lure students and staff from other Lowestoft schools, especially nearby Pakefield High, and drain vital money from their budgets.

The Seckford Foundation, which is behind the free school scheme, has confirmed it is looking at using the Carlton Colville site after learning that its first-choice – Beccles Middle School – would be unavailable until 2014.

The site in Hall Road – which will become vacant next week when Carlton Colville Primary completes its move to the former Gisleham Middle School campus – would be home to a new school, catering for years seven eight and nine, that would be funded directly by the government and be free from local authority control.

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But the proposals are being viewed as potential threat to Lowestoft's education system, which is still feeling the effects of the controversial schools organisation review (SOR) and the closure of all the town's middle schools.

Peter Byatt, Waveney district councillor for Pakefield and local National Union of Teachers representative, told the Journal: 'We the (NUT) totally oppose free schools as we already have a very good state system in place.

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'They will destabilise the local school system... They damage the planning of local school places. Free schools remove money out of the state system that should be spent on students in the area, including Pakefield.

'These state schools are working really hard for their pupils. Free schools undermine the area and create segregation. If a parent has a car they make take their children to a free school elsewhere instead.'

Mr Byatt said it was also 'nonsense' to set up a free school on the Carlton Colville Primary site as it was a too small site for such a move. He said: 'If the students want to do PE will they have to use the field opposite?'

The plans for the free school were drawn up a group of parents with children at Beccles Middle School which is due to close in the summer under the SOR. However, their hopes of opening the free school on the middle school site suffered a temporary setback when it emerged it was needed until 2014 by nearby Sir John Leman High while it builds new classrooms to accommodate the extra students it is taking in as a result of the shake-up.

If a student moved from a Lowestoft school to the free school then the state school would lose the funding it received for that child. However, free schools are also being offered money by the government to get established.

Perry Linsley, head of Pakefield High School, which opened last September as part of the SOR in the Lowestoft area, said it was 'simply unfair' that free schools received more money than state schools to be set up and run.

He was also concerned that his school and others in the area may lose vital funding and resources.

But Mr Linsley admitted he was puzzled why the Secker Foundation had chosen such a small site for a possible temporary home. He added: 'Whoever chose this particular school in this particular location?'

Under its current plans, the Seckford Foundation hopes to open the free school in Carlton Colville in September and move to the Beccles Middle School in time for the start of the autumn term in 2014.

A public meeting will be held in Beccles next week to discuss the plans.

Graham Watson, director of the Seckford Foundation, which runs Woodbridge School and also hopes to set up a free school in Saxmundham said: 'We have an opportunity to provide an exciting new type of school for the young people of Beccles and the surrounding area and our parental support surveys have indicated there is a clear demand.

'It's envisaged the increase in student numbers over time, together with teaching requirements of the higher year GCSE groups, will necessitate the move to the intended original site at the existing Beccles Middle School in September 2014. Until 2014 special transport arrangements will be made to take children from Beccles to Carlton Colville.'

Waveney MP Peter Aldous said the potential impact of a free school on existing schools had to be carefully assessed and encouraged people to take the opportunity to have their say. He said: 'I would encourage everyone who is interested in this situation to make their views clear on the issue, whether they think it is a good thing or a bad thing.'

However, Bob Blizzard, Labour prospective parliamentary candidate for Waveney, branded the proposed temporary move to Carlton Colville as a 'scandalous waste of money'.

He said: 'I've said before that Beccles Free School is not wanted and not needed.'

In Beccles, the free school plan has drawn criticism as it seen as a rival to the town's Sir John Leman High.

Sir John Leman's head Jeremy Rowe said the plans to temporarily locate the free school in Carlton Colville showed there was not enough interest in the idea. Mr Rowe added: 'I would welcome them (the Secker Foundation) to withdraw it completely as there has not been the demand for this free school.'

• The public meeting about Beccles Free School will take place at Hungate Church Hall, in Beccles, on Tuesday, January 24, at 7pm, and the consultation period concludes at 5pm on February 28.

•What do you think? Send your views to Postbox, The Journal, 147, London Road North, Lowestoft NR32 1NB or email including your name and address .

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