THE launch of one of the Government’s flagship free schools, backed by a television entertainer and hailed as “outstanding” by Michael Gove, has been thrown into doubt with no confirmed premises, staff or pupils in place – despite supposedly being due to open in eight months.
Questions are now being asked about why the Government waved through initial approval of Rotherham Central Free School, with officials suggesting little obvious consultation has been carried out.
The school was one of four in Yorkshire and 79 across the country which were hailed as “pioneers in education” by the Government three months ago when it was given the initial go-ahead to open in 2012.
However, Rotherham Council has warned that it has still had no contact from the school and now does not expect it to be able to open this year.
The authority does not know where the free school is to be based, how many pupils it has recruited or whether there any staff in place.
It has warned that if the free school was to open now and began recruiting pupils it would cause problems for Rotherham’s existing secondary schools, which started their own admissions process months ago and are set to make offers next month.
Rotherham Central Free School could take 100 pupils out of other schools and was expected to cost the council £2.5m a year in lost funding once it had five full year groups.
The Department for Education (DfE) has told the Yorkshire Post that the backers behind the planned school – who enlisted children’s TV comedian Barry Chuckle as a patron – need to consult “with people who will have an interest” and report back to Education Secretary Michael Gove before it can get the go-ahead.
In October last year it was announced that the Rotherham school was part of the second wave of free schools accepted by the Government using “more rigorous” criteria.
Anyone wanting to open free schools from 2012 was asked to produce detailed reports demonstrating parental demand, the type of education their school will provide and evidence of their own “capacity and capability”.
Now Rotherham MP Denis MacShane is demanding answers over how the plan was able to get initial approval from Ministers last year if “sufficient consultation had not been carried out”.
He said: “There is a cover-up going on regarding this ghost school. It does not reflect well on Whitehall that this process has been allowed to go on and on.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that this was an attempt to parachute a free school into Rotherham.” Mr MacShane has had four Freedom of Information Act requests about the free school’s plans and consultation rejected by Ministers.
The DfE declined to answer the Yorkshire Post’s questions about the level of consultation that Rotherham Central Free School had already carried out.
The Rotherham bid is being led by teacher Charlotte Blencowe, who works in Sunderland, and Future Access Schools – an academy trust created last year – based at a residential address belong- ing to Miss Blencowe in Rotherham.
After the Rotherham Central Free School’s application was accepted last year, Future Access Schools said it would open in September 2012 with 100 11-year-old pupils and move to a new building in the centre of Rotherham next year.
The trust also said it only had a handful of its 100 places left, suggesting scores of parents had already signed up.
However, Rotherham Council now says it is unaware of any application process taking place for the free school.
Coun Amy Rushforth, the authority’s member for lifelong learning, said: “It would be unfair if the school does get the go ahead now as it would have a negative impact on our schools.”
A council spokesman said: “This year’s secondary and primary schools admission process is already well under way and the deadline for parents to submit applications for September 2012 has passed...
“Clearly the opening of a new school would have a negative impact on our existing schools which are planning ahead based on the applications which we have received.
“At this stage having received no further contact we can only presume that the proposed school will not be opening in September this year.”
Coun Rushforth added: “The only consultation I am aware of was someone who handed me a leaflet that was being passed around outside schools. It had a photograph of Charlotte Blencowe and some bullet points but was not a community consultation.
“I have very little information that there is demand for this school in Rotherham and until I see it I will be suspicious about how it has got to this stage.”
Rotherham Central Free School announced in 2010 that one of the Chuckle Brothers, Barry Elliott, was to be its patron. Elliott said Miss Blencowe, who is the partner of his son, had not spoken to him about the planned free school recently.
Miss Blencowe said she was unable to comment but would get Future Access Schools to contact the Yorkshire Post. They have not done so and the website for the free school listed by the DfE does not work. Rotherham councillor Thomas Fenoughty was listed as a director of Future Access Schools when it was created last year. He also declined to comment yesterday.
Last year Mr MacShane clashed with the Education Secretary in the Commons over the school. The Rotherham MP suggested the free school was planning to open at a disused B&Q warehouse next to one of the “busiest and most fume-filled roundabouts in South Yorkshire”.
Mr Gove replied: “I hope that this – I am sure, outstanding – new school will attract... students who will want to benefit from the high quality of education.”
Key plank of education reform
FREE schools are a key reform of the Government which is encouraging parents, teachers, charities and existing schools to launch their own state-funded primaries and secondaries if there is parental demand.
Yorkshire has been at the forefront of the movement, with three free schools already open and up to six more in the pipeline. Batley Grammar became the region’s first free school when it converted from the private sector.
Two new schools have also been launched in Bradford: a secondary called King’s Science Academy and Rainbow Primary. Free schools are run autonomously, like academies, outside of council control.