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Free Schools

Volume 656: debated on Monday 11 March 2019

There are 443 open free schools, and we will establish another 263. Today, I announced the approval of a further 37 special free schools and two alternative provision schools. In the spring, we will announce the successful applications from wave 13, and we recently published the wave 14 applications.

Cobham Free School’s secondary department has been in temporary accommodation since 2014. While it is welcome that the sixth form is moving in to the new site at Munro House in September, the rest of the pupils will not join them until 2021, which is frustrating for pupils and parents and will cost over £1 million. Will the Secretary of State see whether more can be done to seek early vacant possession, given the additional money and expense that would otherwise go on temporary accommodation, to get those children into the permanent site as soon as possible?

I commend my right hon. Friend for his ongoing work with the Cobham Free School and the upcoming project at Heathside Walton-on-Thames. He has met my noble friend Lord Agnew to discuss vacant possession and, as he knows, there have been delays in trying to get it, but I would be happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.

Whether free schools or not—a policy I disagree with—Stoke-on-Trent now has a huge gap in the number of places available at secondary schools to the point where 11 of my 14 secondary schools are oversubscribed, with some constituents having to get three buses to get to their allocated school in September. What is the Secretary of State planning to do about that?

This decade we are on course to create 1 million new places in schools across the country. It will be the largest expansion in school capacity in at least two generations, following the net loss of 100,000 places during the last six years of the Labour Government. Although there will always be individual situations that we need to address—we have a capital programme to do that, and I will be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss it—there are now tens of thousands fewer pupils in schools that are over capacity.

In The Times on Friday, the Secretary of State said that

“an exclusion should not just be the end of something but be the start of something new and positive.”

What is he doing to address the postcode lottery of alternative provision, particularly in areas with high amounts of exclusion? Why does the latest free school wave contain just two free schools with alternative provision? What is he doing to change that?

Some alternative provision free schools are already open, and there will be more over time, and my right hon. Friend is right that today’s announcement contained two more. Like him, I have seen some outstanding alternative provision in our country, and we need to ensure that that happens everywhere.

Today’s announcement of 37 new free schools to deal with exclusions is all very well, but the fact is that the reason why headteachers feel that they have to exclude pupils is that there is simply not enough money in special educational needs and disability provision in the first place. More is not enough from this Government. When will the Secretary of State finally fund SEND provision properly?

As the hon. Lady knows, there is more money going into high needs provision—£6 billion. However, it is also true—this is implicit in what she says—that there are greater demands on the system. That is why we brought forward as a first stage the package that I announced a few months ago, including the extra revenue funding and extra capital funding, but we know that there is more to do.

Parents and children in Middlesbrough were left angry and upset last week by the announcement that 100 pupils will not receive a secondary school place in the town from September and will instead be placed with neighbouring authorities. A key cause of that is population growth. Middlesbrough Council is supporting a bid for a new free school in Middlehaven, so will the Department expedite it as a matter of urgency?

As I said to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), there are areas where we need to continue creating new school places. That is why we have already created over 800,000 school places since 2010 and are on course for 1 million new school places over the decade.

On the free schools process, we expect to announce the outcome of wave 13 before too long.

Instead of increasing the number of free schools, will the Secretary of State look at how we could improve the quality of the free schools we already have? Plymouth School of Creative Arts does exceptional work in some respects, but it is failing in others. Will he look at investing more in making sure such failing and troubled schools give our kids the education they deserve?

That is at the heart of what we do. That is why we have Ofsted and a school improvement programme, and it is why we encourage schools to learn from one another. One of the main reasons we have multi-academy trusts is so that they are able to work together. I think the hon. Gentleman will be meeting my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards, who takes a close interest in Plymouth schools, to make sure the very best can be done.