Free school opening delays must be decided by national offer day, councils warn

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THE DECISION to postpone the opening of a new free school must be made before national offer day and not at the 11th hour during the summer holidays to avoid disappointment and disruption for parents, council leaders have warned today.

The Local Government Association has said that schools and councils should be able to know by mid-April, rather than late August, whether or not new free schools in their area will be available and whether offers are likely to be taken up.

A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that 53 free schools have pushed back opening dates since September last year. With free schools receiving a pre-opening grant of £220,000 for primary and £300,000 for secondary schools, £11.7 million has already been handed over in funding for school places that have not been provided.

Coun David Simmonds the deputy chairman of the LGA, said: “When a new free school fails to open on time, it can have huge implications for families. It is absolutely crucial that parents know what is happening at the earliest opportunity. “In order to minimise disruption, councils are calling on government to ensure any postponement is made before national offer day, so we don’t have a repeat of the situations that councils have witnessed in local areas over the past couple of years. Councils can help those mums and dads provided government has made its mind up on time.”

Coun Simmonds said the late postponement of a free school opening caused disruption for parents, pupils and schools.

He said: “For many families, they will have already have paid for new school uniforms and will have organised their transport plans to ensure their child is able to travel to and from school safely.

“When last minute delays are announced by government, it is the council that picks up the pieces to reassure mums and dads that their child will have a place at a school before September.”

Free schools were a key education reform of the coalition Government. The Department for Education has encouraged the creation of new state schools if applicants can demonstrate they have sufficient demand for their proposal. There have been several examples of free school being given the initial go ahead but then having the opening date put back.

However the Department for Education has said that the vast majority of free schools open on schedule.

In August 2012 the One-in-a-Million Free School, in Bradford, discovered that its Government funding was not being approved a week before it was set to open. The free school run by a charity with links to Bradford City opened its doors a year later in September 2013.

In London Nanaksar Primary School will now not be opening on time this September and with the Education Funding Agency still not able to confirm if it will be ready to open in 2016, the council has had to delete it from its admissions brochure due to be printed next month for perspective parents. While in Brent, Gateway Free School has announced that it will not proceed with opening plans after failing for the third year running to find a school site.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “Free schools are a critical part of our vision for education, which is led by parental demand for more good local school places and driving up standards across the country.

“The vast majority of free schools have opened on schedule. In a small proportion of cases, we agree with the school’s proposers that the school should open later than they had originally planned.

“In each case we make sure parents are notified at the earliest opportunity.”

Currently, all school admissions are co-ordinated by councils except for the first year of a new free school when parents have to apply to the school directly. With fears that not every free school will be able to open on time, parents are recommended to also apply to other schools, meaning that currently parents seeking a place for their child at a new free school normally hold two separate offers.