Education Secretary Michael Gove has launched a fresh attack on North East schools as he came under fire over his “free schools” policy.
Mr Gove has been accused of cutting the budget for other schools by £400m to pay for new free schools, with his own Liberal Democrat colleagues in Government leading the criticism.
And a North East MP has added to the pressure on him by pointing out that one free school in the region is likely to cost around £30,000 per pupil, around four or five times higher than most state schools.
But speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Gove justified the creation of new schools by arguing that the existing ones are failing children – and highlighting North East schools as an example.
It followed Mr Gove’s comments last year when he claimed that the “smell of defeatism” was coming from East Durham schools.
City of Durham Labour MP Roberta Blackman-Woods told the Commons that pupils in her constituency were suffering because cash had been poured into The Durham Free School while others were short of funding.
Mrs Blackman-Woods said: “The free school in Durham will be lucky if it achieves a total roll of 80 students next year at a cost of £30,000 per pupil.
“Does the Secretary of State think this is good value for money in an area of surplus places, and where local successful schools like St Leonard’s that are crying out for investment from his department, have been told by his Schools Minister that no money is available?”
But Mr Gove told her: “The first thing to acknowledge is that the amount of money we are giving to Durham local authority for basic need is increasing under this Government, and the second is that the Durham Free School will add to the quality of education that children in Durham enjoy.
“In the city of Durham there are some outstanding schools, like Durham Johnston school which has succeeded over generations, but across the North East the level of educational ambition has been too low for too long, and we need new providers to help augment the quality of education, not just in County Durham but elsewhere.”
Speaking afterwards, Peter Cantley, the school’s headteacher, said: “The Durham Free School opened in September 2013 with 30 children and has grown by 20% since then, which is very encouraging and shows that parents like what we are doing.
“We expect the total roll to be 90 at the start of term in September 2014 and anticipate a similar rate of growth year on year.”
Mr Gove has been attacked in recent days by Liberal Democrats over his commitment to opening new free schools, which are funded directly by the Department for Education and managed as independent schools in the state sector.
Civil war has broken out within the Coalition, with Liberal Democrats telling Westminster journalists that Mr Gove cut funding for new school places, known as Targeted Basic Need Programme, by £40m between 2015 and 2017.
This is enough to provide around 30,000 new school places.
The money was used to help plug an £800m shortfall in the free schools budget between 2013 and 2016, Liberal Democrat sources said.