‘It’s scandalous’: when free schools shut for want of a permanent home | Education
Louise Grace’s two children, aged 13 and 11, spent more than a week off school last term suffering from anxiety. Their school, the International Academy of Greenwich (IAG), is earmarked for closure and the worry of watching it happen – friends taking up places elsewhere, teachers leaving – is affecting both children badly, their mother says.
“My daughter is so upset by it all: she is losing her friends and she is worried about going to a new school, with her GCSEs about to start. She is despondent about the whole process,” says Grace.
“My son seemed to be holding it in,” she adds. “But before Christmas, he said: ‘We were told by the school that it wouldn’t close, and you told me there would be a school for me. You let me down,’ and then he just shut himself in his room.”
Now Grace, a single parent, has given up her job, concerned she would otherwise be unable to support her worried children, and fearful about the logistics of trying to find them new school places.
Since November, when the IAG became the latest free school to announce its closure, parents of more than 200 pupils have been scrambling for places at other secondaries.
One mother says her son sobbed after being told he had to leave, while for another family, the closure has been a key factor in their decision to move from the UK.
Many parents now say free schools should never have been allowed to open without planning permission for permanent buildings. The IAG families believe they are at the sharp end of the free school policy, which has been the government’s main vehicle for opening new schools in England since 2011. There have been success stories, such as the Michaela free school in north London, but the failures – of which there have been plenty – are traumatic for those affected.
Overall, 27 free schools have had to close or change management. Sometimes children have been left with little or no education for weeks following a school closure while their parents search for a place elsewhere.
Since 2016, some 92 schools have opened in temporary accommodation and of these, just 27 have moved into a permanent home. Last year alone, 25 schools opened on a temporary site.
Abacus Belsize school, in London, has spent six years in temporary premises while a planning dispute rages over its proposed move into a former police station, bought for £14m and approved by Boris Johnson as mayor of London.
A primary free school in Croydon was recently graded “inadequate” by Ofsted, with children being taught in portable buildings since 2014. And Southwark free school, again backed by Johnson, closed in 2017 after five years as it, too, had never managed to find a permanent home.
The IAG’s story is the latest example of how the free schools policy can be undermined by poor planning. It was allowed to open in September 2016 in an office building owned by a church while waiting for its new building on playing fields – a location, on protected metropolitan open land prone to flooding, that was highly controversial.
Meanwhile, the DfE ploughed money into the school’s temporary premises, paying the church £395,000 in rent each year – £1,500 per pupil. Parents, many of whom were attracted to IAG because it offered the international baccalaureate curriculum, were told not to worry.
A year ago the DfE was still saying it was “anticipating a positive planning decision”, and the council’s secondary schools admissions booklet [pdf] for 2019-20 was suggesting the school would be in its permanent building in 2021.
Yet emails released under freedom of information show that by last April, Greenwich planning officials were telling the DfE that they did not think there was a case to open the school. While in 2018 Greenwich had stated that there was a shortage of school places, now it was now saying there was not.
Another new free school is due to open in the borough in 2021, run by the Harris Federation. Council documents show [pdf] that this affected Greenwich’s assessment of the need for school places. This has meant, the IAG parents say, that the provision of places in a not-yet-open free school contributed to the closure of the existing one. This is not disputed by the council.
Sure enough, in July last year council planners refused permission for the playing fields site, provoking uproar among the IAG’s parents and pupils. With ministers saying the school could not continue long term in its temporary premises, its closure was announced.
The IAG, which as of last term had 267 year 7-10 pupils, will close for years 7-9 this summer, with year 10 pupils, who have started their GCSEs, finishing them at the school next year. Pupils have been given no guarantees of places elsewhere, and some parents have moved their children into private education.
Kate Simpson is emigrating with her family to Toronto, where she grew up, although she had hoped to stay in London until her son, Cameron, 11, had completed high school. “We are devastated that the school is closing. Our decision to leave it is no reflection on its incredible teachers. It’s the system that’s the problem.”
Another parent, Michaela Barnes (not her real name), has managed to find her son a place elsewhere, but only after he had started at the IAG and she had bought his uniform. On the evening of his first and last day at IAG he was “curled up on the floor, in the foetal position, sobbing”, she says.
Peter Godden, who has moved his son, aged 14, to a private school, says: “The government let these schools open in temporary buildings, then let them fall by the wayside when planning permission was not given. It’s scandalous.”
Comments from the DfE and Greenwich council indicate they were at loggerheads. Greenwich says: “This regrettable situation has arisen due to the Department for Education granting permission for a school with no permanent accommodation to open … the Royal Borough of Greenwich is working closely with Lewisham council to ensure that the pupils, families and staff affected … receive co-ordinated and comprehensive support.”
The DfE says: “We have changed our policy to prevent cases like this happening again, only using temporary accommodation where there is a pressing need for places and a permanent site has been secured.” Permission was given on a “case by case” basis, said a spokeswoman. The DfE guidance [pdf] says schools should open in temporary buildings only “in exceptional circumstances”.
This will ring hollow for the IAG families. Grace, who has found her children a place at an under-subscribed secondary for September, says: “This has destroyed my faith in the education system. Those in charge genuinely don’t seem to care about the impact on children of schools closing: it is just a political game to them.”