Free School is ‘a waste of money’

Alan Whittaker on a main road that runs through Heskin.
Alan Whittaker on a main road that runs through Heskin.

A former Lancashire education chief and long-serving councillor has criticised proposals for a new Free School in Chorley.

As previously revealed in the Guardian, the Department for Education has approved preliminary plans for the Chorley Career and Sixth Form Academy, a new school for 11 to 18 year olds and the town’s first sixth form college.

But Alan Whittaker, former chairman of Lancashire County Council’s education committee, fears the new school will draw funding away from existing schools and described it as a ‘waste of money’.

“Chorley has five secondary schools at the moment and they’re all rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted,” said Mr Whittaker, now clerk of Heskin Parish Council.

Most students in Chorley have to go to Runshaw College, in Leyland, when they finish their GCSEs and want to carry on with their A Levels.

Mr Whittaker is concerned a new school will draw pupils away from existing schools in the town where there are already hundreds of spare places.

While the Department for Education will meet the cost of building and setting up the academy, schools are funded on a per pupil basis.

This means that each child that moves to the new academy could take up to £6,000 of funding with them, which could disadvantage students at the current schools.

“Schools need a minimum number of pupils to be able to afford the teachers and equipment to offer a broad curriculum,” Mr Whittaker explained.

“The government talks about parent choice, but we already have all the choice you can think of.

“We simply don’t need any more competition in this area. Why try to parachute in yet another school?”

Free Schools get their name because they are free of local authority control and the one for Chorley would have a capacity for 500 children and could open in 2012.

It is being considered for the Bengal Street depot site which owners Chorley Council wants to sell.

The driving force behind the scheme is Dr Bulvinder Michael while Tory Coun Alan Cullens is the chairman of governors.

Coun Cullens, who is the executive member for planning for Chorley Council, said Chorley parents must have the final say.

He said the school had collected more than 500 signatures from parents and college students who were ‘extremely interested’ in attending.

“There are a significant number of parents sending their children out of the borough, to Bamber Bridge and Leyland,” he said. “We will offer them an alternative. We’ll also be the first school in Chorley to offer education to children from 11 to 18.”

Coun Cullens also confirmed that, as a Free School, the new school’s funding would still come from the council’s education grant and it would be competing with current schools for funding.

He explained: “If schools are good, people will choose them. The five schools in Chorley are already competing with each other and we will compete for pupils on exactly the same basis.”

Mr Whittaker is a former Labour councillor and Coun Cullens claimed: “Mr Whittaker is expressing party dogma. His party is consistently opposed to Free Schools throughout the country, despite excellent results from the US Charter Schools they’re based on and the English Free Schools already open.”

Dr Michael said: “The (existing) schools need to ask themselves why they’re under subscribed. This is all about parental choice. Parents are saying ‘we need something different’.

“Our young people are the future. Our education system needs to be geared around them.

“This is nothing to do with politics. It’s to do with the young people of Chorley.”