Why are new schools being opened on temporary sites, sometimes before planning permission for their permanent homes has been given, and with the prospect of years of uncertainty over their long-term location?
The thought occurred again recently after I surveyed the government’s record on its controversial free schools policy, which sees new institutions opened outside of the auspices of local authorities.
Although free school supporters trumpet slightly higher exam results – among those which remain open – than for other state-funded schools, the reality has been that the policy has had varying impacts on the ground, with problems over planning a consistent theme for a minority.
Last year, it was announced that one of the earlier institutions to have opened under the free schools policy – Southwark free school in Peckham, south London – was to close having failed to attract sufficient pupils. It had never moved to a permanent home following planning delays.
Another school, Paxton academy, in Croydon south London, has operated from temporary buildings – again, portable huts – since 2014, with a permanent home only now looking in the offing after the government overturned the local authority’s refusal of its planning application for its chosen long-term site.
Parkfield free school, in Dorset, which opened in 2013, was originally planned to open in central Bournemouth but ended up moving into permanent buildings next to the town’s airport last year, after spending four years in a temporary site.
A school on which I reported back in 2016, the International Academy of Greenwich, opened that year in temporary buildings, with the intention being that it moved to a permanent site – next to a flood plain for which it had yet to gain planning permission – in September 2018. This has yet to happen, although the home is supposed still to be built there.
I also covered the case of a free school, St Anthony’s in Gloucestershire, which seems to have operated for years in buildings about which an independent report had raised safety concerns, and with the prospect of moving to a permanent site on the table for a while, only to fall through. The government shut it after five years of operation in July.
Meanwhile, in February a school in Brentford, west London, run by the Floreat chain announced plans to close having faced “insurmountable challenges” in temporary accommodation, and with, at the time of its proposed closure,“no certainty” over when its proposed new home would become available.
In December 2016, it was revealed that children at more than 100 free schools were being educated in temporary buildings.
At the start of this term, I was astonished to learn that a secondary free school which opened two years ago, Canary Wharf College Crossharbour in Tower Hamlets, east London, was still mentioning, on its website, “long term” plans for a permanent site.
Meanwhile, an “all-through” school which opened in 2016, One Degree Academy in Enfield, north London, states on its website that it is now delighted to have “secured our new permanent home”, but that this will not open for another three years, subject to detailed planning permission.
For both of these schools, the fact that they have had to operate on small temporary sites mean that they have been educating, for years, a tiny fraction of the number of pupils a normal secondary or “all through” school would cater for.
Unique to free schools?
I survey the above case studies – and this list is far from exhaustive – and wonder how we get into a situation whereby schools can be set up, and opened, with a key aspect of their long-term futures undecided upon.
Free schools are relatively new, having been launched at the start of the coalition government, with the first institutions opened in 2011.
Did similar chaotic stories abound in the years before that, with new institutions being opened by local authorities? Well, in 13 years as an education reporter up to 2010, I cannot recall a single case of a school proposal having had similar problems to those documented above.
Of course, that may be in part because creating new schools as a major policy option is a relatively new aspect of education planning.
In recent years rising pupil numbers have indeed created a demand for more school places. But it is only with the advent of free schools that the response of policymakers has been to open many new institutions, rather than, for example, to concentrate on adding extra classes to existing schools.
More than 300 mainstream free schools have been opened since 2011, with Theresa May having promised last year to open 100 new frees a year.
Has this been too hasty? Well, the problematic stories charted above, where parents and pupils have endured years of uncertainty, suggest that serious questions should be asked of this policy.
Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist who runs the Education Uncovered website.