Angela Smith: The academy with no demand and no track record

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CHAPELTOWN, and Sheffield generally, is an area that enjoys a rich legacy when it comes to providing educational opportunities, whether for young or old. I emphasise that this legacy has always been very locally driven by pioneers such as Lady Mabel Smith, who was – believe it or not – the sister of the seventh Earl Fitzwilliam but was a Labour councillor who worked very hard over a number of years to provide education for local people in the 20th century.

She was the driving force behind the establishment of Ecclesfield Grammar School, which is now the local comprehensive serving the Chapeltown area.

That tradition – that legacy – has continued in recent years. We have seen the development of a sixth-form college in one of the most deprived parts of the city – Longley Park. We have seen Hillsborough College go from strength to strength.

We have also seen the recent development of three new sixth forms, approved by the Secretary of State. They are all in the north of the city, as indeed is Chapeltown. They have already provided 188 additional places, and that number will grow to 460 by September 2014.

However, one of those institutions – Parkwood – has had to postpone its recruitment of sixth formers because of a lack of demand for places. In addition, Bradfield School, which is just six miles from Chapeltown, has failed in its first year to meet its initial allocation of 50 places.

Bradfield is the most popular school in the north of the city. Places in its years seven to 11 are oversubscribed every single year, and its reputation drives that popularity. I am confident that it will fill its sixth form in the end, but at the moment it is failing to do so. The underlying reason is the demographic decline, which is beginning to bite in Sheffield and, is forecast to continue until 2020.

That all calls into question the establishment of the new, post-16 free school – Chapeltown Academy – which hopes to open this September. For a start, the academy is not locally driven: it was not initiated or suggested by local people, educationists or employers. Moreover, based on the fact that our new sixth forms are not being filled, the demand just is not there.

There are also problems with the proposed location. It is in the middle of an industrial park. It is a big warehouse, with office space attached to it. It is not possible to enter the area at present, because it is gated by an electronic barrier, which has a gatehouse attached to it. It is surrounded by other businesses, including a repair garage that seems to specialise in repairing heavy goods vehicles. When we visited, a host of container-type lorries were parked in the area around the garage.

The local authority planners, have raised serious concerns about the site’s sustainability. They are also concerned about the highways implications – the industrial park is off the road that takes traffic from junction 35a of the M1 down into Ecclesfield. It is a very busy road.

One of the problems is that the planning process is abandoned – it is not applied – when it comes to new free schools. That does not prevent Sheffield planners from having a view and their view is absolutely clear.

My final point about the location is that the site has no green space around it whatsoever. The website claims that there is recreational space in front of the building for students and staff alike. At the moment, that recreational space is a car park. Where opportunities for sport will come from is absolutely unimaginable.

We have concerns about the transparency of Chapeltown Academy Ltd’s development of the proposal.

Of course, the planning process does not apply in relation to getting planning permission for the site, but a consultation has to take place instead. The consultation, which was online, is now closed. There were a few questions asking for all people’s details and their email address, but the consultation consisted of one question: “Do you agree with the premises chosen for Chapeltown Academy – yes or no?” There was also a little box for additional comments. If the local authority tried to undertake a consultation as shabby and inadequate as that, it would rightly be pilloried.

I come to the most important point of all. My understanding is that only 12 Sheffield students have accepted a place at Chapeltown Academy as their first preference. Given that just 12 young people have taken a place at the academy, there is a strong possibility that the funding agreement will not go through. It is absolutely immoral to encourage young people to take up offers of places at an institution that might never open.

Chapeltown Academy Trust has no track record. It has come from nowhere. It is not a chain or a charity. It has no background whatever. It is untested, untried and unknown. I ask Ministers to make a commitment seriously to consider backing out of the venture before it is too late.

Angela Smith is the Labour MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge who spoke in a Commons debate on free schools. This is an edited version.