Suffolk primaries under threat whilst £11 million spent on unnecessary Free Schools

The EADT revealed today that free schools in Suffolk have so far cost £11 million in set up and building costs  In fact this is just for two of them - IES Breckland and Stour Valley Community School. Both these schools are under capacity.

So far an additional £2 million has been spent on the two Seckford Free Schools in Beccles and Saxmundham. This is just on “set up costs”. Capital funds for buildings haven't yet been revealed.

All this in a county that has thousands of spare places in its High Schools.

Indeed the DfE itself said of the Beccles Free School bid in its impact assessment published recently that:
The Waveney District, in which the Free School will be located, currently has a 38% surplus of secondary school places and this is predicted to rise to 45% by 2015/16 academic year without the establishment of the Free School. 
The DfE went on to ignore this claiming that:
any negative impact of establishing the Free School could be outweighed by the positives of creating genuine choice for parents (by offering an alternative model of a small school with a clear focus on academic achievement) and driving up educational standards in the local area.  
But what really makes me angry is that at exactly the same time as money is being thrown around building computer labs full of iMacs in free schools a significant threat to hundreds of rural primary schools has emerged.

Due to budget cuts and changes to the funding formula proposed by the DfE many Suffolk schools with less than 150 pupils will become unviable. They will be either forced to close or merge with other local schools.

The No School An Island report commissioned by Suffolk County Council as part of their Raising the Bar initiative concluded that:
As of May 2012, there were 3 schools with under 25 children on roll, 16 schools with under 50 pupils and 57 schools with fewer than 100. The majority of these schools (44 out of 76) were not at the time of writing (April 2013) in or looking to find a formal partnership arrangement. Concerns about the long-term viability of these schools have been heightened in the context  of current funding pressures, together with changes as a result of the new simplified funding formula for schools that have taken away the curriculum top ups which previously offered some protection to small schools. While the minimum-funding guarantee offers protection for a limited period, the bottom line is that small schools will be vulnerable to closure if and when this is removed. 
Hundreds of Suffolk parents will lose the choice to send their children to their local village primary school if this happens. Where I live in the Stradbroke pyramid every single Primary school is under 150 pupils. Already schools are having to make difficult choices and facing real hardship. Whilst we watch open mouthed at some schools having major building work small schools are struggling with capital budgets of literally (and I am NOT making this up) £5,000 a year. That doesn’t buy many iMacs….In a small school with a small budget any cut is felt more and there is literally nothing left to cut back on.

Even the best the DfE could promise in their impact assessment of the proposed Beccles Free School is that it could create choice and drive up standards.

If small village schools are forced to close it will reduce choice and it will damage communities in rural Suffolk.

The money spent on these free schools should be being invested in our rural schools to ensure they not only stay open but thrive. Choice for some should not be at the expense of the needs of others.
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