Controversial North East free school could face the axe under Labour

Speaking to The Journal, Mr Hunt said Durham Free School and Discovery Free School, in Newcastle, could close unless they succeed in attracting more pupils

General view of the Durham Free School in Gilesgate, Durham
General view of the Durham Free School in Gilesgate, Durham

Two North East schools could face the axe under a Labour Government, Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt has warned.

Speaking to The Journal, Mr Hunt said Durham Free School and Discovery Free School, in Newcastle, could close unless they succeed in attracting more pupils.

And he accused the Government of keeping failing free schools open for “ideological” reasons - at the expense of more popular schools.

Chair of Governors at Durham Free School, John Denning, said that the school is “completely financially secure” with the numbers it has.

Meanwhile Discovery School’s principal Wendy Allen said the school met the target figure for pupils set by the Department for Education (DfE).

Durham Free School opened on the site of the former Durham Gilesgate school, which closed in August 2013 because of falling pupil numbers.

It opened with just 30 pupils and a year later the school had just 94 pupils out of a target of 150.

Labour MPs and the National Union of Teachers have accused the Government of lavishing cash on the school while others in the region need the money more.

Concerns have also been raised about governance and financial management at the school by its own headteacher, who reported his worries to the Department for Education.

Labour has said it will open no more free schools, but will allow existing schools to stay where they are successful.

Dominic Salter Tristram Hunt
Tristram Hunt

However, speaking to The Journal at Westminster, Mr Hunt accused the Government of “protecting” troubled free schools such as Durham.

He said: “No school has a right to exist forever. If it hasn’t got the numbers - we’re not giving certain types of school protected status.”

Mr Hunt added: “The difference between us and the government is that the government takes an ideological view that free schools are better than other types of schools, which is to protect them from the normal pressures that they’re under.

“There is an issue, which we do understand, that when you open a new school you are filling it year by year by year, and it needs to build up some momentum.

“But we can see lots of free schools which have filled their roll and are achieving successfully and are not under pressure, whereas we are seeing some free schools, with poor leadership, parents aren’t supporting it, and we certainly wouldn’t throw good money after bad if that was the case.”

Mr Hunt said: “If parents aren’t sending their kids to a school then it’s not viable.”

Durham Free School, as well as free schools in Bradford, Surrey and Derby which have also come in for criticism, where schools he had in mind, he said.

Parents at Durham Free School defended the establishment in light of Mr Hunt’s comments.

Jenny Denning, a secondary school teacher, said she was delighted with the progress her 12-year-old daughter had made in a year, reaching a reading age of 16 despite struggles with dyslexia.

“She is very happy and enthusiastic about school and has grown in confidence and character,” said Mrs Denning. “I have absolute confidence in the staff to keep her safe and give her every opportunity for success.

“I know from speaking to other parents that they rate both the behaviour and the education on offer as being of a high standard.”

Discovery Free School in Newcastle upon Tyne, which opened with 120 pupils despite planning for 360, could also be under threat, although Mr Hunt said he wanted to give new schools a chance to attract pupils.

The opening of the Discovery School in Newcastle
The opening of the Discovery School in Newcastle

The school’s head rebuked Mr Hunt’s comments saying the school met the target figure for pupils when it opened in September.

Ms Allen said: “It is incorrect to say we only had a third of the pupils we planned for – we actually had a full complement of the numbers we expected.

“We are working closely with Newcastle City Council, using their admissions system, to ensure that future admissions are planned as part of the education provision for the area. Long term we have capacity to take more pupils and I am confident that we will reach targets in future years to fill all of those places.

“We are receiving support from a number of leading businesses who are working in partnership with us to offer a practical and challenging curriculum that is relevant to the STEM industries.”

The Shadow Education Secretary also said Labour would reform funding arrangements to ensure schools in rural areas received a similar level of funding to those in urban areas which currently receive more.

He said: “The challenge in schooling is often in coastal towns, in rural areas, in market towns.

And so, over time, we hope to move towards greater fairness in the funding system.

“But what we’re not going to do is come in and do a big bang review of the funding formula.

“There are issues about inner urban living and costs which do need to be reflected in funding formula. But we also need to appreciate that if we are getting the results and attainment in inner urban areas and the challenge is in more outlying areas then that needs to be reflected in funding.”

Labour would make technical and vocational education a priority, he said.

And he also pledged to reform Ofsted, the school inspection system, saying heads had complained it appeared to be pushing schools to become academies.


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