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Free Schools fight on

Protestors outside the Beccles Free School on its opening morning Photo: ITV Anglia

In a quiet corner of rural Suffolk, five protesters chose to pick up their placards on Thursday morning and stake out a village school.

It was a silent protest and seems to have gone almost unnoticed by the excited children and parents arriving at Beccles Free School for the first day of its first ever term.

But if there weren't many protesters present today, it's fair to say there weren't many students either; the secondary school has just 68 pupils.

"I think what we've done is we've started a school, we've got our 68 students and we hope that that will grow."

"The 68 students here have arrived, they're very happy, they're learning and they will have a really good quality education."

– John Lucas, Headteacher, Beccles Free School
Official opening of Beccles Free School which is temporarily based in Carlton Colville Credit: ITV Anglia

The number of pupils at Beccles Free School has made it very controversial; last week the Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg argued that setting up the school was a waste of taxpayer's money, especially at a time when many schools are struggling financially.

He claims the school has received £2 million of government funds - a figure the Department for Education disputes, although they have refused to name the actual sum.

Opposition to the school has also crossed party political lines; the Conservative MP for Waveney is one of nearly 3000 people who signed a petition against it. The new school says they will win their critics round by providing an excellent education for children in Suffolk.

The Principal of Bedford Free School greets new pupils Credit: ITV Anglia

Scepticism about the new schools isn't restricted to Suffolk. Over in Bedford the town's free school has gone down better with local residents - 200 children have signed up - but hasn't had the thumbs up from the local council.

Bedford Borough Council have twice declined the school planning permission, saying it will cause traffic congestion on an already busy road. The council have issued a breach of condition notice against the school which will take 28 days to come into force.

But the school opened on Thursday morning regardless, saying they are appealing the council's decision.

"We believe we've already got the right planning permission that we need on this building."

"There's a difference of opinion about that with the council but our legal advice is very strong and that's why we've decided it's in the children's best interests to open today."

– Mark Lehain, Principal, Bedford Free School

Free Schools are a key policy for the Conservative Party who have invested a lot of political capital in their success; 11 are opening this month in the East alone.

So while Bedford and Beccles may seem a long way off from the corridors of power, the fate of the two schools will be closely watched.

Ultimately their success won't rest with politicians, it will rest with local parents. If enough support the schools they will flourish; if not they are likely to fail.

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