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Free Schools (Chapeltown, Sheffield)

Volume 579: debated on Wednesday 30 April 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

It is a pleasure to have secured this Adjournment debate on a topic that is very important to the people of Chapeltown and the surrounding area.

Chapeltown, and Sheffield generally, is an area that enjoys a rich legacy when it comes to providing educational opportunities, whether for young or old. I emphasise that that legacy has always been very locally driven by pioneers such as Lady Mabel Smith, who was—believe it or not—the sister of the seventh Earl Fitzwilliam but was a Labour councillor who worked very hard over a number of years to provide education for local people in the 20th century. She was the driving force behind the establishment of Ecclesfield grammar school, which is now the local comprehensive serving the Chapeltown area. She was the chair of governors for 20 years until her death in 1951. Even now, Ecclesfield comprehensive, which is a very successful academy, has its assembly hall named after her—Lady Mabel hall. We are all very proud of the legacy that she has left us. The school goes from strength to strength under the inspired leadership of Joel Wirth, the head teacher.

That tradition—that legacy—has continued in recent years. We have seen the development of a sixth-form college in one of the most deprived parts of the city—Longley Park. We have seen Hillsborough college go from strength to strength. Only recently, it has enjoyed an £8.8 million investment from the Government because it is considered successful and has been judged by Ofsted to be a good college. Very recently, we have had a university technical college—a brand-new institution that is already going down very well in the city and which was driven absolutely by local employers and local educationists.

We have also seen the recent development of three new sixth forms, approved by the Secretary of State. They are all in the north of the city, as indeed is Chapeltown. They have already provided 188 additional places, and that number will grow to 460 by September 2014. However, one of those institutions—Parkwood—has had to postpone its recruitment of sixth formers because of a lack of demand for places. In addition, Bradfield school, which is just six miles from Chapeltown in the north of the city, has failed in its first year to meet its initial allocation of 50 places.

Bradfield is the most popular school in the north of the city. Places in its years 7 to 11 are oversubscribed every single year, and its reputation drives that popularity. I am confident that it will fill its sixth form in the end, but at the moment it is failing to do so. The underlying reason is the demographic decline, which is beginning to bite in Sheffield and, based on birth rates from years ago, is forecast to continue until 2020. In the seven-year period from last year to 2020, we will suffer a 12% decline in the post-16 population, and the cohort will not be restored to 2012 levels until after 2023. The fact that attainment levels are going up all the time should lead to greater demand for sixth-form places, but that demand will not sufficiently replace the lack of demand produced by the demographic decline.

That all calls into question the establishment of the new, post-16 free school—Chapeltown academy—which hopes to open this September. For a start, the academy is not locally driven: it was not initiated or suggested by local people, educationists or employers. Moreover, based on the demographic decline and the fact that our new sixth forms are not being filled, the demand just is not there, despite the assertions of the academy’s proposers to the contrary. My statistics are based on those provided by the local authority of Sheffield city council, which does all the measuring, and there is no evidence whatsoever that there is demand for these additional sixth-form places. The increasing demand that does exist in the city, in common with other boroughs in the area, such as Barnsley, is for primary school places.

We also need to continue the work of building the skill set of young people in the region, given that our city, and the Sheffield city region more generally, is still broadly an engineering-based economy. On top of that, we need to ensure that we develop more fully the whole range of post-16 opportunities, because we want to develop the talent of all our young people, not just those who want to be professionals or academics. That is important, but all the evidence shows that, if we need to provide extra post-16 opportunities, the emphasis has to be on further investment in vocational training and skills.

That point is underlined by the fact that 1,200 young people in Sheffield are not in education, employment or training—the awful acronym NEETs is overused nowadays and I prefer to use the full term. That is clearly where the city needs to place its emphasis. We need more provision to help meet the needs of those 1,200 young people, who have fallen behind and need extra support to get themselves work-ready and skilled for the workplace. Clearly, there is no statistical base for opening the new academy.

There are also problems with the proposed location of the new academy. I visited the site at the weekend—I knew where it was, but I just wanted to have a good look at it. It is in the middle of an industrial park. It is a big warehouse, with office space attached to it. It is not possible to enter the area at present, because it is gated by an electronic barrier, which has a gatehouse attached to it. It is surrounded by other businesses, including a repair garage that seems to specialise in repairing heavy goods vehicles. When we visited on Sunday, a host of container-type lorries were parked in the area around the garage, which is adjacent to the proposed academy building.

The local authority planners, who are professionals, have raised serious concerns about the site’s sustainability. They are also concerned about the highways implications of the proposed site and the associated safety of students. One of the problems is that the planning process is abandoned—it is not applied—when it comes to new free schools. That does not prevent Sheffield planners from having a view and their view is absolutely clear.

The site is approximately 2 acres. The academy’s proposers suggest that there will be very minor amendments in the office space part of the building for the first year 12 intake in September. During the first year of the new institution, phase 2 site development will take place, which be in the huge warehouse—the industrial unit—attached to the office space. The proposers claim on their website that the building works will not affect or disrupt existing classroom space, which I find very hard to believe, indeed.

The industrial park is off the road that takes traffic from junction 35a of the M1 down into Ecclesfield. It is a very busy road. The travel route for many students getting to the academy from Elsecar and the rest of Barnsley will involve going to Chapeltown railway station. The website for Chapeltown academy claims that Barnsley to Chapeltown on the Penistone line takes six minutes, which is great, but it does not say that there is a further 1.7 mile walk to get from Chapeltown railway station to the academy. That walk involves going up the busy road to which I have just referred, which is not safe. Alternatively, there is a slightly shorter route up Cowley lane in Chapeltown, but that is equally busy and will involve crossing the road twice as the footpath runs out on either side. I can absolutely understand why the planners in Sheffield have serious concerns about the safety of students in accessing the site, which is entirely unsuitable.

My final point about the location is that the site has no green space around it whatsoever. The website claims that there is recreational space in front of the building for students and staff alike. At the moment, that recreational space is a car park. Where recreational space and opportunities for sport will come from is absolutely unimaginable. I know that Ecclesfield park is down the hill in the centre of Ecclesfield village, which is what the academy claims on its website, but if that is the best it can do for green space, I am sorry to say that that is just not sufficient, and many local parents and young people will feel the same.

We have concerns about the transparency of Chapeltown Academy Ltd’s development of the proposal. Of course, the planning process does not apply in relation to getting planning permission for the site, but a consultation has to take place instead. The consultation, which was online, is now closed. There were a few questions asking for all people’s details and their e-mail address, but the consultation consisted of one question: “Do you agree with the premises chosen for Chapeltown academy—yes or no?” There was also a little box for additional comments. If the local authority tried to undertake a consultation as shabby and inadequate as that, it would rightly be pilloried by elected representatives, such as me, and by local media, parents, young people and the local community. It is absolutely astounding that the academy can think that that constitutes a proper consultation on a site as controversial as this one.

In addition, at the moment there is a shadow governing body, but the details of the permanent governing body have had to be extracted from the academy bit by bit. In the end, I had to write to the Minister to start to get any kind of detail at all. Even now, the detail of how the permanent governing body will look is not complete. We have the details of only four or five of the individuals involved, which is just not acceptable. On top of that, we have very few details about the staff. The names of just three members of staff and the principal-designate have been announced.

Yet we expect young people and their parents to put their faith in this venture. It is untried, untested and unknown—and it may never happen. I quote from a letter dated 25 March that I received from Lord Nash:

“I will carefully consider before entering into a funding agreement with the Chapeltown Academy Trust. Making certain that there is sufficient demand from students and that the institution will be financially viable are two of the factors that I will look at when making my decision.”

I come to the most important point of all. My understanding is that only 12 Sheffield students have accepted a place at Chapeltown academy as their first preference. Given that just 12 young people have taken a place at the academy, there is a strong possibility that the funding agreement will not go through. It is absolutely immoral to encourage young people to take up offers of places at an institution that might never open. What will happen if it does not open? Those young people will be left without a sixth-form place and will have limited choices from what is left. They will have the crumbs from the table when trying to find another sixth form to attend in September. Is that acceptable? I do not think so.

In summary, Chapeltown academy is not needed, it is not locally driven, it is in an inappropriate location, there is very little transparency in the development of the venture and it is risky. It threatens to let down the young people who have put their faith in the institution. Even though there are only 12 of them from the city of Sheffield, that is 12 too many as far as I am concerned. Chapeltown Academy Trust has no track record. It has come from nowhere. It is not a chain or a charity. It has no background whatever. It is untested, untried and unknown. I ask the Minister to make a commitment tonight seriously to consider backing out of the venture before it is too late and young people are left adrift in September, not knowing where to go to further their education.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing what is an important debate not just for the students, but for the communities that she represents in Sheffield, and on ensuring that the proposed free school at Chapeltown in Sheffield is scrutinised properly. It is right to acknowledge that she has made a long and distinguished contribution to education in the House and in her constituency. I believe that she was also a teacher of English at Dearne Valley college until 2003, so she speaks with authority on this subject.

I will endeavour to respond to as many of the points she has raised as possible in the short time that we are allowed for this debate. If I do not manage to do so, I will ensure that she gets the answers in writing from either myself or the Minister who is responsible for this area of policy, my noble Friend Lord Nash.

I begin with a statement on which I hope we can all agree: every child and young person should have the opportunity and choice to go to an excellent local school. That is why we are committed to providing all parents with a diverse choice of high quality provision, including free schools. One hundred and seventy-four free schools have opened and another 120 are in the pre-opening phase and are due to open in 2014 and beyond. Once they are all approved, open and full, those free schools will offer 150,000 pupil places.

Before free schools are allowed to open, the free school proposers receive a significant period of support and challenge from the Department for Education. There is a rigorous application process that involves a paper assessment and an interview with the proposer group. Where required, there are specific conditions for the approval. There is then the pre-opening period when groups such as Chapeltown are supported by officials as they develop their proposal further, consult the local community and work towards signing a funding agreement with the Department.

Quite rightly, as they are brand new schools, there is greater oversight of open free schools than other academies, at least until their first successful Ofsted inspection. It is worth noting that most free schools are performing well. For example, recently in Yorkshire and the Humber, Dixons Trinity academy was rated outstanding by Ofsted, despite opening only 20 months ago.

There are already six free schools open in England that cater for 16 to 19-year-olds. The first of those to open was the London Academy of Excellence, which has been rated as good by Ofsted. The others, including Chapeltown academy, are looking to open in September 2014 and beyond. Chapeltown academy will be the first purely academic 16-to-19 free school—should it be accepted—for 300 students in the north of the city.

The trust’s vision as it is laid out is to provide young people in the area with the dedicated A-level provision and support that it believes is currently lacking in the north of Sheffield. That type of provision is needed by students who have aspirations to attend some of the top universities in the country. The academy aims to open in September this year with 150 students, and it will cater for a total of 300 students when running at full capacity.

The Minister has just claimed that there is demand for high-quality sixth-form places in the north of the city, yet Bradfield school—one of the highest performing and most popular schools in the city—cannot fill its sixth form.

That is not my claim; that is the trust’s own vision that it has set out. I will come on to explain how we must take into consideration—along with a number of other factors—the demand in the city for this provision before deciding whether to go ahead with the project.

As the hon. Lady knows, the Department assesses the proposal for the Chapeltown academy, and it must approve it to proceed into the pre-opening phase, which it did in June last year. There has been significant progress throughout that phase, and we envisage that the Department will soon consider whether the Secretary of State for Education should enter into a funding agreement with Chapeltown Academy Trust. I emphasise that the Department places great importance on that decision, and it is also aware of the need to do it as soon as reasonably practicable if it does go forward, so as to provide increased certainty of a sixth-form place for potential students in the local area.

The hon. Lady alluded to the fact that she has already written to my colleagues, the Secretary of State for Education and the Schools Minister, on a number of occasions, to express her concerns about this academy, which she has also articulated extremely forcefully this evening. She has helpfully laid out some valid points before the House, and the Minister responsible for the decision will carefully consider such issues before entering into any funding agreement with the Chapeltown Academy Trust. I will also take this opportunity to address some of the specific points the hon. Lady has raised.

On evidence of demand, in its original proposal the Chapeltown academy had—as with all free school projects—to produce robust evidence of demand for its proposed provision from parents and prospective students, and make a strong case for its proposal, citing contextual factors including the breadth and quality of the local post-16 offer. The Chapeltown academy received more than 300 expressions of interest in spring last year from students who stated that they would choose to attend the academy were it to open in 2014. As I have said, the academy will have 150 places available in the first year, and even with the delays to the announcement of the site for the academy—I will come to that in due course—the trust has already made more than 130 offers, 81 of which have been accepted to date. That figure will obviously change in due course.

We are aware that some students may potentially hold a place at another post-16 establishment—a point raised by the hon. Lady—so it is difficult to predict precisely at this stage the number of students who will arrive should the Chapeltown academy open in September. However, the academy has a robust student retention plan in place that has been shared with the Department for Education, and it will continue to recruit students to ensure that sufficient numbers are achieved.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the decreasing demographic of the 16-to-19 cohort in Sheffield and the impact on existing providers. I understand that the 16-to-19 cohort in Sheffield overall may decrease in the coming years, and that all post-16 providers in the north of Sheffield will therefore be looking to attract potential students. Chapeltown academy will have a dedicated academic provision focus and will attract students who aspire to go on to attend some of the top universities in the country. Currently, if students in the local area wish to attend a purely academic education option they must either attend provision that provides both academic and vocational courses, or travel substantial distances across the city to seek it elsewhere.

Unfortunately, time does not allow me to elaborate on the various institutions available to students in the city, although the hon. Lady referred to some of them. Part of the whole ethos of the free schools programme is to provide competition for existing providers with the aim of driving education standards across the whole sector. That is something that the Chapeltown academy will want to be able to offer to the academic students in the area.

The hon. Lady also raised concerns about the capacity and experience of the proposer group for the Chapeltown academy. We are fully aware that the skills and attributes that are valuable in writing a proposal or successfully delivering a project are very different from the skill set required to govern an academy effectively. I totally agree that a strong and effective governing body is a crucial element in the success of any educational institution. As is the case with all free schools, we expect to see a strong governing body in which any conflicts of interest are identified and addressed. That is why we have asked the trust to consider its governance arrangements to ensure that its membership has both the skills and the experience to drive through any necessary improvements. That was reiterated to the hon. Lady in a letter from the Minister for Schools. To that end, the revised governing body now consists of two former head teachers—one being the chair of governors, who has post-16 leadership experience—a chief executive of a local charity, a senior human resources consultant, a former director of education and skills, and a chartered accountant. We are now satisfied that the governance structure has the capability to deliver an outstanding education to its students. I understand that full details of the governing body are available on the Chapeltown academy website.

Will the Minister acknowledge that that is only five members of the permanent governing body? The rest of the governing body will not be announced until towards the end of the year.

I cannot contradict the hon. Lady’s comment, but I will look carefully at the point she has made. It will need to be considered as part of the process as it continues.

The Department is aware that some of the local post-16 providers in the north of Sheffield and across the city are not in favour of the proposed Chapeltown academy. Clearly, we would not necessarily expect that to be the case, for obvious reasons. We are also aware that some of those providers have liaised directly with the Chapeltown academy to request further information about its proposal. It is for the academy trust to determine what information or financial data it is appropriate to release at any given time. I understand that the Chapeltown academy has discussed its proposal with some existing colleges and has provided as much information as it feels is possible without releasing confidential information.

As for the financial viability of the Chapeltown academy, it has supplied financial plans as required at each stage of the project, along with a business model that further demonstrates the viability of the free school. The trust will produce revised financial plans again before we consider entering into a funding agreement. Rightly, those financial plans are rigorously assessed by the Department to ensure that they are viable both from a financial and educational perspective.

The hon. Lady raised concerns about the consultation carried out by the free school trust. That is something it has to do to establish whether it should enter into a funding agreement with the Department. The Department also consults local authorities in considering a free school proposal. The trust has worked to ensure that it consults as many stakeholders as possible, and I understand it wrote to the hon. Lady, inviting her to attend a consultation event, along with giving her a hard copy of the consultation document.

At the time of planning and launching the public consultation, the negotiations for the Chapeltown academy’s premises were commercially sensitive, so the trust was unable therefore to release the details of the proposed premises at that stage. Respondents to the consultation were informed that the trust would consult the public again regarding premises in due course. It has now run a separate public consultation regarding the premises, which opened on 12 March and closed on 2 April. The trustees are considering the responses received and will publish a supplementary report. I know that the hon. Lady will be interested in its contents.

Officials from the Department also sought the views of local authorities in Sheffield, Rotherham and Barnsley. As with all free school proposals, the responses from this consultation, along with the consultation undertaken by the trust, will be duly considered before we decide whether to enter into a funding agreement with the trust. The next steps are for officials to collate all the evidence in relation to the Chapeltown academy proposal, and for Ministers to consider whether to enter into a funding agreement with the academy trust.

I know that the Chapeltown academy has taken the approach of sharing as much information as it can publicly regarding the new academy. As the hon. Lady said, it is proposed that the free school will be located in an industrial unit on the Hydra business park. It is intended that temporary permitted development rights will shortly be applied for to enable the school to use part of the existing office space for one academic year. A full planning application for change of use and external alterations will also be submitted for the permanent building, so there will be some planning oversight of the facility.

As with all free schools, a wide range of factors is considered before entering into a funding agreement. We remain confident that the Chapeltown Academy Trust has produced the material necessary, but it remains for it to make its case.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.