Free school ruling thwarts Leeds plan for special needs children

A COUNCIL is considering legal action to see if it can stop a free school being moved on to a site which it wants to use to educate children with special needs.

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The Department for Education has transferred land previously owned by Leeds City Council to the trust which runs Khalsa Science Academy, a Sikh ethos free school which opened in temporary premises in the city in 2013.

Leeds City Council’s cabinet member for education, Coun Judith Blake, confirmed the authority was considering using the former Fir Tree Primary site as a base to educate children “with challenging behaviour” issues.

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However, Schools Minister Lord Nash has told the authority he is “making a land scheme” which means the site has transferred to the Khalsa Trust for free. The authority believe the land is worth about £1m.

In a letter to the council, Lord Nash said he had taken into account that the site might be needed for a special school which may have pupils “who shared the protected characteristic of disability”.

But he adds: “I consider that any negative effect on such pupils of making a land scheme are outweighed by the benefits of providing greater choice for parents who may be seeking a Sikh ethos education.”

Lord Nash said the Khalsa Science Academy aimed to ensure pupils of backgrounds contribute to the community and he said the project could have a positive impact on community relations.

However, Coun Blake questioned how much local demand there was for the school. The academy is a primary school which opened with a reception class last year and is expanding with a new year group each year.

Figures from Leeds City Council showed it has 20 pupils in year one meaning 10 spare places and 12 pupils in its reception class. Coun Blake said she understood only three of these 12 were Leeds pupils who had put the school down as their first preference.

She said: “We are concerned with providing school places in the areas of greatest need and Khalsa’s numbers so far give us cause for concern.”

The Khalsa Trust said they believed they would attract more pupils now the school has a permanent base.

The trust’s communication manager Katrina Cliffe said: “On October 13, ownership of the Fir Tree Primary site was transferred to the Khalsa Trust, and we are now working towards opening the school on that
site for September 2015. We are unable to comment further on the details of the transfer because Education Funding Agency
solicitors are still acting on our behalf.

“We are really pleased to have secured a permanent home for the Khalsa Science Academy; we look forward to working with the local community and welcoming their children to our school.”

The trust has also has the go-ahead to open another primary free school, the Khalsa Engineering Academy (KEA) in Bradford in 2015. But the proposed site of this school has also been the source of controversy as it had previously been used as a community centre.

Bradford Council says a covenant on the land in Fagley stipulated that it remains in “community use”. Khalsa Trust said it was engaging with the community to ensure KEA was a community hub.