Bradford’s newest school is under construction.
Less than a mile away, Bradford Girls’ Grammar School plans to become a free school within two years.
Coun Ralph Berry, portfolio holder for children’s services, sees the introduction of Free schools as the Government’s way of ‘meeting the rising roll’.
“I don’t particularly welcome it. I think it is a very complex story, but we have a need for additional places and they are not allowing us any funded route for schools to be set up,” says Coun Berry.
Bradford Girls’ Grammar School’s intention to open as a free school is a welcome move, according to Coun Berry. “We will support the Bradford Girls’ Grammar because it gets rid of academic selection and fees and we need places in that area.
“They have given us a commitment they will be adopting a fair banding system so they will take children from a broad area, that will minimise the impact on immediate local schools.”
Coun Berry has a fair point. The opening of free schools could introduce tough competition for schools already serving the catchment. They say competition is healthy but, business aside, every child has a right to an education.
Not every child can walk to school, but if they can it satisfies one of the Government’s green goals. Free schools could help meet the demand, easing the pressure on schools that are over-subscribed.
Coun Berry says the new schools have to work with existing schools and the local authority.
“When you look at the rising population I have concerns that, bit by bit, we end up with a very random and haphazard way of planning the education service. But at the moment Bradford does not have lots of land available that readily lends itself to building schools,” says Coun Berry.
He says while Bradford has a need for places, the location of the schools is not necessarily close to where the demand is. “We have to work together to do the best for the Bradford community,” he adds.
The process that has resulted in the much-anticipated school at Valley Parade – which will admit pupils in the autumn – has not been easy. The school’s principal designate Jez Stockill describes the journey.
“The actual setting up of a free school is a very rigorous process, but it needs to be rigorous as there is a significant investment of Government money. It also needs to be rigorous as a free school has to be able to deliver a quality education for young people.”
It has taken around two years to reach this point, he says. “You have to put together an original proposition to present to senior civil servants, who make a judgement about whether the proposal can go ahead. If it can, it is carefully monitored over a period of time until the school is set up.”
Ofsted, the official body for inspecting schools, evaluates the school’s policies. “They judge whether you are fit to govern a school,” says Jez, “And you hold meetings with the Department for Education to see that you are ready to open a school.”
The involvement of potential parents varies with each application. “Some proposals are parent-led, with parental involvement at the heart,” says Jez, “Others could be spearheaded by businesses, charities, or faith groups.”
The future looks rosy for Valley Parade School – Government-funded, and run independently by a collaboration between the charity, the football club and the Department for Education.
“I’m pleased with where we are going,” says Jez. “It is a very challenging process, and very exciting as you are setting up a school from scratch. You have to keep in mind the end result – which will be an amazing school.”
Being a small secondary school, it will complement rather than compete with other schools in the district.
Campaigners for a free school in Birkenshaw failed to secure a site in time for a Government grant deadline. They planned to locate the school on the site of Birkenshaw Middle School, which is now going to leave local authority control to become an academy instead.
Liberal Democrat Councillor for Cleckheaton Kath Pinnock is pleased with the outcome. “Free schools don’t have to work with and co-operate with other schools, and don’t have to take children from that area. They can pick and choose pupils, and would undermine existing schools.”