Free School in free fall?

Free School protesters
Anti free school protesters at a Waveney District Council meeting last night Photo: ITV Anglia

Beccles is a small town, but the Department for Education's decision to approve a Free School here has led to a large amount of rancour.

The school's supporters and detractors now appear to view each other with dark suspicion; the discovery this week that Free School pupils might be issued with i-pod touches led to accusations of inducement, which were equally strenuously denied.

So the news that the Free School has only 37 pupils out of a possible 162 signed up for its planned opening in September has not gone down well. The Seckford Foundation who are behind the Beccles Free School bid says it expects that number to rise in the next month, but admits that 37 pupils would not make a viable secondary school.

Carlton Colville Primary School
Beccles Free School hopes to open at the former Carlton Colville Primary School in September Credit: ITV Anglia

This problem has significance beyond one Suffolk town. Given how much political capital the government has invested in its Free School policy, the collapse of the Beccles venture would be embarrassing.

To avoid that scenario the Conservative MP for Waveney has suggested that the Seckford Foundation combines Beccles Free School with its more popular Saxmundham Free School which it also plans to open in September.

"It would appear appropriate for the Seckford Foundation to explore the possibility of a consolidated Free School at the Saxmundham site and I would urge them to give this option full consideration."

– Peter Aldous MP, Waveney

Beccles isn't the only Free School to hit difficulties just three months before opening. Bedford Free School were disappointed to learn this week that they've been denied planning permission by the local council for their site, despite having 200 pupils signed up. They are now working with the council to resolve this issue and hope planning will be approved by August.

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