When is a Free School not a ‘free’ school?

FREE SCHOOL: Regeneration plans and lost economic activity are a heavy price to pay for a new Free School.
FREE SCHOOL: Regeneration plans and lost economic activity are a heavy price to pay for a new Free School.

OLDHAM Council got a letter last week from Lord John Nash, Education Minister, informing us of the Department for Education’s final ruling on the future of the former South Chadderton School site.

It gave us just 48 hours to transfer this land over to the ownership of the Collective Spirit Trust, a new secondary Free School which plans to open this September.

All the lobbying from our MPs on our behalf, plus the months of negotiations and protests by residents had officially fallen on deaf ears.

It frustrates me how the Government claims to support localism in one breath but then swoops in like this to snatch powers away from Local Authorities when they disagree with them – although that’s not my main concern in this particular saga.

Mostly I am left wondering how “free” this Free School actually is when you consider that the costs to Oldham’s economic development, plus the potential costs to young people’s education, are incredibly high.

What happened here was that, several months ago, Collective Spirit had put in a request to us to take on the former South Chadderton School site.

Instead, the Council offered them several alternative sites like the Groundwork building on Shaw Road: a handsome Victorian school building.

We did this because we realised that for a ‘Free School’ – funded by taxpayers and free to attend – this represented much better value for public money.

The South Chadderton site they wanted had already been identified as a crucial component of our Borough’s future.

By selling it to developers we knew we could generate significant income to help fund the exciting regeneration projects we have planned around town – plus deliver a new and much-needed set of high-quality homes for local people. It looked to be a ‘win win’ scenario for taxpayers.

Now that the Secretary of State has ordered us to give part of the site away for free, we are all simply left footing the bill.

It means millions lost from our budget in terms of the estimated land value, plus the lost Council Tax and economic activity that this important asset represented for the Borough.

Even more disturbing here though are the potential repercussions this Government decision may have on the education of our young people – something you cannot put a price on.

We already have 16 secondary schools with ample provision of places here in Oldham. But with Collective Spirit’s plans to attract 300 of these students to their own facility, this could mean a loss of approximately £1.3 million in per-pupil Government funding to our existing schools. That could be a huge hit to their finances and plans.

As a final word on this matter – and to put the record straight – Oldham Council does not want Collective Spirit to fail.

To make sure that doesn’t happen we will be monitoring their progress very carefully and offering support to them as part of our wider school network, if they choose to work with us.

Overall I believe the education offer in Oldham is good and making great progress at present.

Across our Borough many pupils are now reaping the benefits from studying in state-of-the-art facilities.

We’ve invested in additional places at Blue Coat, plus a range of primary schools. We also have approval for a replacement secondary school at Saddleworth and remain fully committed to Royton and Crompton school, which is in need of serious investment (a much wiser use of limited taxpayers’ money).

This will be my last blog now before the summer recess starts.

Looking back on the past year I find myself reflecting on how much Oldham is changing – both physically and psychologically.

Other people are spotting it too. A visitor from Derby this week, for example, told me she was staggered and inspired by how much construction and regeneration was underway or planned around our town centre.

I also think that increasing numbers of people and partners here are rising to the challenge and now prepared to stand up and fight for Oldham, which bodes well for our future.

Thanks to you all and – if you’re taking a summer holiday – I hope it is enjoyable and relaxing.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

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