Consent withdrawn for Chuckle Brother ‘phantom’ free school

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A CONTROVERSIAL plan for a free school backed by a Chuckle Brother has had its Government approval to open this year withdrawn.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has removed his department’s backing for the Rotherham Central Free School amid claims that it had no teachers, pupils or buildings in place despite being set to open in less than eight months time.

The Department for Education (DfE) said it had been cancelled because it was not “progressing sufficiently”.

Now Rotherham MP Denis MacShane is demanding to know “how much tax-payers money has been wasted on this phantom project”.

The plan for the Rotherham Central Free School was launched in 2010 by Charlotte Blencowe, a teacher and former Conservative Party candidate from the town.

She enlisted Barry Elliott, better known as one half of the Chuckle Brothers, to be its patron.

Three months ago it was one of 79 planned free schools which were hailed as “pioneers in education” by the Government and given initial approval to open in September 2012. But it emerged yesterday that its backing has now been withdrawn.

A Yorkshire Post investigation earlier this month revealed that the school had no confirmed site, staff or pupils and Rotherham Council was unaware of what consultation had been done.

Free schools are a key reform of the Government which is supporting the creation of new state funded schools set up by parents, teachers or existing schools.

Rotherham Central was part of the second wave of free schools accepted by the Government using “more rigorous” criteria.

Bidders were asked to produce detailed reports demonstrating parental demand and evidence of their “capacity and capability”.

Mr MacShane and Rotherham Council’s portfolio holder for lifelong learning Amy Rushforth have questioned how the Rotherham Central Free School was able to get through this stage. Mr MacShane said: “It was clear from the very outset that the proposal for Rotherham Central Free School was an ideological fantasy promoted by Conservative Party activists without any support from parents or the teaching community in Rotherham.

“Mr Gove refused over a number of months to reveal the names of parents or any other supporters of his pet scheme.

“It has no premises, no pupils, no teachers, and the front person for the scheme lives and works in Sunderland.”

Last night Miss Blencowe said the DfE understood that changes to her personal circumstances had meant that opening a new school within a year had proved too great a challenge.

She now works as principal of an academy in Sunderland. She added: “I remain passionate about the need to improve educational standards in my home town of Rotherham, and fully expect to revisit the opportunity to improve the life chances of young people within the area at a later point in my career.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Opening a free school is not easy and all proposers deserve credit for the hard work that they put in at every stage of the process.

“Our priority has to be to open schools where educational provision will be strong, and where this represents the best use of public funds. In this case, we judged that the plans were not progressing sufficiently for this school to continue to the next stage. The aim of the free schools programme is to give parents more choice, and to drive up standards.”

She said the DfE looked forward to getting more free school applications from the Rotherham area.