Ministers have given two controversial free schools in Suffolk the go-ahead to open this September.
Beccles Free School and Saxmundham Free School will be free, non-selective secondaries that will initially only take pupils aged 11-14, but plan to take children up to the age of 16 by September 2014.
The two Free Schools plan to take over their towns' Middle School buildings, after the Middle Schools are closed as part of Suffolk's move from three to two tier education.
Sarah Pastor lives in Saxmundham and has two children at the town's Middle School which closes this summer. She has worked on the town's Free School bid for the past 18 months and plans to send her children there when it opens. She is delighted the bid has been approved:
– Sarah Pastor, Saxmundham Free School supporter
“The Saxmundham Free School is the best possible news for the town. For somewhere the size of Saxmundham, with a growing population and more housing planned, it seemed unthinkable that we might be without any post 11 education.
"Saxmundham needed a positive boost and the Free School will deliver that with a broad-based education for our children. My family are very excited to be part of Saxmundham Free School and we can’t wait for September.”
Beccles Free School will not open on the site of Beccles middle School until 2014 when the site becomes available. Instead the school will initially open over 6 miles away at the former Carlton Colville Primary School site on the outskirts of Lowestoft.
Since they were first announced, the plans to open the two free schools have met with tough local opposition and divided communities in Suffolk.
The Headteachers of Leiston High School near Saxmundham and Sir John Leman High School in Beccles have both argued that the new schools will adversely affect education in the area, as there will not be sufficient financial resources or pupil numbers to fill both the new and existing schools.
Proposals made by Suffolk County Council earlier this month to cut the number of free transport places available to take children to Leiston High School and instead offer them free transport to Saxmundham Free School have also raised concerns about parent choice, as Anglia News recently reported.
The Free School bid in Beccles has generated significant local opposition, including a petition signed by over 2000 people, and it has been condemned by the local Conservative MP Peter Aldous. He fully supports the principal of free schools, but has said there are not enough children to make a new school in Beccles a viable option, especially since a new High School was recently opened in Pakefield.
In response to the news of the Free Schools' approval, Beccles County Councillor Mark Bee went even further, saying:
– Cllr Mark Bee
"I'm disappointed and angry that the government has ignored local opinion. I would urge the people of Beccles to support the John Leman as the established school and vote with their feet."
The row in Beccles may yet continue, as the Headteacher of Sir John Leman, Jeremy Rowe, has not ruled out the possibility of launching a judicial review against the decision.
Beccles Free School and Saxmundham Free school are both backed by The Seckford Foundation, a local charity which governs Woodbridge School, a fee paying school for 950 pupils near Ipswich.
The Seckford Foundation say they were approached by parent groups in both Beccles and Saxmundham to support the bids for the two schools because parents wanted greater choice in the future education of their children. The Foundation add that they are delighted that the two schools have been given the go-ahead.