Newcastle City Council warns free school plans could risk pupils' safety

CHILDREN’S safety could be put at risk because of Government plans to speed up the free school process, a council has warned.

Students line up in the playground of the newly opened West London Free School

CHILDREN’S safety could be put at risk because of Government plans to speed up the free school process, a council has warned.

Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has announced new measures allowing free schools to open in almost any building for a year – without needing planning permission.

The aim is to tackle the lengthy process by removing red tape, while at the same time reassuring parents and staff that the school will be able to open on time.

However, Newcastle City Council has condemned the move as “reckless”, adding that the safety and security of pupils will be jeopardised.

Coun Joanne Kingsland, Cabinet member for children’s services, said: “The Government is claiming that these measures will remove red tape and make it easier for free schools to be set up.

“But the planning process exists for a good reason which should be to guarantee that children are going to school in suitable premises that are fit for purpose and that their health, safety and wellbeing are safeguarded – which is a key priority for Ofsted.

“Children could end up going to school in a warehouse or old offices if these proposals are approved and I can’t believe that the Government is happy to put children into any old building without knowing that it is suitable and safe.

“The Government has tried to reassure councils by saying that permission will only be granted for one year until more suitable accommodation is found but, in reality, these premises could become permanent if the austerity programme continues.”

She added: “This announcement also exacerbates the problem of free school allocation, where little consideration is given to the impact a school’s location has on communities.”

So far across the country, 80 free schools have opened in 18 months, with around 100 more expected to join them at the start of the next academic year in September.

Mr Pickles said: “It is vital that free schools can plan with confidence to be able to open at the start of the academic year and these new planning measures will provide that certainty for both schools and parents.”

One free school due to open this September is the West Newcastle Academy, which is still to announce a site in the West End of the city.

Project manager Richard Evans said “We welcome the Secretary of State for Communities’ proposals to streamline the planning process involved in opening a new school or academy; and we agree with Coun Kingsland in regards to her comments that safety should be paramount where children are concerned.

“West Newcastle Academy is committed to ensuring the highest standards of safety for our pupils and staff in any building we may occupy, and can assure prospective parents that we will adhere to Department for Education and Ofsted guidelines on safeguarding, as do all free schools and academies.

“We will continue to work closely with city council officials to secure a suitable site. The Education Funding Agency will ensure if we need to open in temporary accommodation for our first year reception class intake of 28, it will meet the same high standards.”

Free schools are funded directly by the Government and can set their own curriculum and policies.

Children could end up going to school in a warehouse or old offices if these proposals are approved

 

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