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Free schools 'pet project' is dogged by failures

Last updated 07 September 2012, created 07 September 2012, viewed 1,126

The failure of planned free schools to get off the ground has prompted accusations this week that the government is wasting millions of pounds on its favourite policy.

But while some have struggled, head Patricia Sowter is already on her way to setting up the first free school chain run More… by a teacher. Next week will see the opening of her second school, Kingfisher Hall Primary Academy. A third is already approved to open next year and there are plans for the chain to work with more schools across the country.

Kingfisher is one of 55 free schools opening this term, which will see the total number of free schools triple. A further 102 have been approved to open from September 2013.

Ms Sowter established her two free schools - the other, Woodpecker Hall Primary Academy, opened last year - while working as headteacher of Cuckoo Hall Academy. All three primaries are in the London borough of Enfield.

Her growing empire will include an all-through school in Enfield from September 2013, and she has ambitions to take on the sponsorship of more schools elsewhere in England.

"I didn't sit down at the beginning with a piece of paper and decide to open these schools," Ms Sowter said. "It was always about taking the opportunities available to me to make them work for the children in this area. This has always been about the moral purpose, and looking for where there is the most need."

When Woodpecker Hall became oversubscribed, Ms Sowter moved quickly to open Kingfisher, which rapidly filled its quota. This prompted her plans for further expansion next year and beyond.

"We would not do anything that would detract from what we are doing here in Enfield, but we are certainly not dismissing the fact that there could be something beyond Enfield where we could offer our help, such as sponsoring a school," the executive principal said.

But Ms Sowter's success stands in stark contrast to other free school applicants, not least the One in a Million Free School in Bradford, which had its funding pulled by the Department for Education a little over a week before it was due to open. It had managed to fill just 30 of a possible 50 pupil places.

The chief executive of the charity behind the school hit out at the government, describing its decision to pull the funding as "baffling". "It just doesn't make sense and we don't know of any other free school that has been put in this position," Matthew Band said.

The decision to remove the school's funding also led shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg to accuse the government of wasting millions of pounds on faltering free school projects. Mr Twigg claimed that £2.3 million has been wasted on schemes that either have not opened or have not attracted enough local support, including £213,000 on the One in a Million Free School.

"By pursuing pet projects, rather than setting up schools where they are needed, millions of pounds that could be spent on improving education are being poured down the drain," Mr Twigg said. He also highlighted that £2 million was spent on the Beccles Free School in Suffolk, which in June had attracted 37 pupils in an area with "10,000 spare secondary places".

Michael Gove said he expected the latest wave of free schools to be as successful as the first. "Every child should have the choice to go to an excellent local school," he said.

"These new schools have been set up by idealistic people who are determined to give parents the kind of choice that only the rich can currently afford," the education secretary added. "The first 24 free schools are enormously popular and I expect this second wave to be equally successful."

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