Free School Is Not So Free

Clovelly School was not sustainable due to low pupil numbers, opened 1872 - closed 2011

Clovelly School was not sustainable due to low pupil numbers, opened 1872 – closed 2011

At a time when free school policy is in chaos (Twitter is full of it but there are also numerous news items suggesting the same) you will all be aware of the plans for a free school (academy) at Steart Farm at Bucks Cross, and you will all, no doubt, have read the publicity materials promoted by Route 39. Possibly, you even have attended one of their promotional events at The Milky Way (their apparent temporary site) or similar.

Steart Farm, the proposed permanent site for the school, is a touring caravan park which brings much-needed visitors/tourism to this quiet, under-populated part of North Devon (and across the border into Cornwall) thereby aiding the local economy.  When full, it has over 50 pitches, which means business for local shops, restaurants, pubs, leisure facilities, and amenities, all of which struggle to varying degrees in low season.  Steart Farm itself is situated off a fast section of the A39, not far from the Hoops Inn. The nearest community is Bucks Cross, where local residents have already termed the school consultation process ‘a fiasco’.

Not only is the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) under threat of development but  there is, of course, and no less important, our children’s education.

Currently – perfectly good – local community schools have surplus places and  are struggling with funding cuts. Something doesn’t feel right. If you’re visited this area of North Devon, you will know there is no major pocket of population to fill a new school. Those seeking an alternative to mainstream education, or wanting ‘human scale’ education, tend to opt for The Small School in Hartland, which provides it.

Of course, there have always been people dissatisfied with local schools and, in the past, their opt out has been to choose an independent, but Michael Gove has provided this new option, spending millions, at a time when austerity measures are impacting upon almost everyone’s lives, not least through cuts in educational funding, but also in infrastructure and welfare.


 And millions is not an over-estimation. Locally, people are suggesting that up to an astounding £4 millon may be the figure to simply buy the site.


It was timely, therefore, that I received this communication from Dave Fitzsimmons, Head Teacher of Holsworthy Community School which, as a parent, I found compulsive. So will you:



On Tuesday afternoon of the half-term holiday I was in school.  As a result of predicted falling rolls, I was working on draft paperwork for staffing redundancies to wipe out a predicted £115,000 deficit at the end of the 2013/4 financial year. The phone rang – it was BBC Devon. They had just received a press release on the announcement of the proposed site for the new Route 39 “Free” School. Would I be prepared to give my reaction on the following Wednesday morning? Here is my personal reaction:


We are constantly reminded that we live in a time of austerity and that every penny of our tax counts, (especially as we have just lost our AAA credit rating with Moody’s). Surely it is nonsense to build a fifth secondary school, when the current four in this area all have capacity? In addition, they are all facing financial pressures due to falling rolls and the poor per pupil funding allocated to children in Devon and Cornwall, which our local politicians seem powerless to change during this Parliament.

The Department for Education has a consistent line that “Free” Schools are only being built in areas where there is pressure on school places (check out the Free School in Beccles, Suffolk,  for a similar case.)

Where is the demonstrable pressure for increased school places needed between the secondary schools of Bude, Holsworthy, Great Torrington and Bideford? All are faced with predicted falling rolls, because of a decline in the number of secondary school age children in this geographical area. Budehaven School has already been through the redundancy process as a result of falling rolls and Holsworthy has just started, because of falling rolls.


What can you do to help? I ask you to complete the Route 39 Community Consultation questionnaire at at the bottom of the page AND CLICK “NO” to question 3 on the basis that it is a complete and utter waste of public money:

3. Do you agree that the Route 39 Academy Trust should enter a funding agreement with the Secretary of State of Education, so that the school can open in September 2013


The growth in secondary school age children seems to be based on predictions of possible house building west of Bideford highlighted in a twenty year strategic plan, but it is far from guaranteed. How many homes would need to be built to provide 600 children between the ages of 11 and 16 with a secondary school education, which was not provided for elsewhere? 

What will be the cost of transporting these children to a school in the middle of an Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB)? Can Devon County Council’s transport budget stand the increase? Already at the Open Day last Saturday 9th March 2013 at the Milky Way new bus routes were being announced duplicating home to school transport. What is the environmental impact of this and can the transport budget cope with increased and unnecessary cost at a time of escalating fuel prices?

The “Free” school organisers have stated that they have 100 Year 7 places on offer for September 2013. To date we believe they have about one-third of this number of pupils – about a single class. Remember we have small primary schools in this area struggling to survive, because they are not economically viable. So what on Earth are we doing subsidising a secondary school of a similar size to a single class primary school with public money?

Having trumpeted the fact they would have 100 Year 7 pupils for September 2013 and being undersubscribed the organisers have now turned to “poaching” current Year 7 pupils to start a Year 8 – never publicised in their plans. This will have a further de-stabilising effect on the other schools in the area.

Throughout this,  I have placed “Free” in inverted commas. These “Free” schools are anything but free in financial terms. They are incredibly expensive.

I believe the initial grant for start up costs to be approximately £300,000 to enable appointment of a head teacher from January 2013, for example. Public money is allegedly being spent on renting industrial units at the Milky Way site until the new build school is ready. Wouldn’t you much rather that this public money was spent on resources for pupils currently in schools in the local area? This “start up” money would more than wipe out Holsworthy’s projected budget deficit arising from falling rolls.

From September 2013 the “Free” School will be awarded £125,000, as they only have a single year group in the school – again more than my predicted deficit budget at the end of this financial year and the £125,000 will be spent on non-existent pupils. The “protection” is on a sliding scale and lasts for four years until they are “full”, i.e. they have 5 year groups, not necessarily 600 pupils. (Interestingly if the “Free” School accepts pupils in Year 8, one would assume the £125,000 will be reduced to the second year of operation amount.)

The counter-argument is that the “Free” School proposals will enhance educational provision. What follows is a tangible example of the negative impact of these proposals on real children and teachers

We are predicted to have 130 children arriving in next year’s Year 7 from September 2013. 130 pupils would warrant 5 forms of entry. However, 10 of the proposed 130 appear to be going to the “Free” School in September leaving us with 120 pupils. 120 pupils do not justify five teaching groups economically, although of course they do educationally. So I am faced with the dilemma of disadvantaging the new Year 7 by having larger groups or keeping five groups and paying for this by reducing provision higher up the school. Irrespective of how the problem is solved, a teacher is likely to lose their job. (I doubt they will be re-deployed to the “Free” school.)  Is this what the parents choosing the “Free” School for their children accept as the cost of their “parental choice”? Do they really wish to disadvantage provision for other children in the area, so that their children can attend a school in rented industrial units?

I cannot draw any other conclusion than to say that I see the Route 39 Free School as a complete and utter waste of public money in a time of austerity.

I have submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Education to enquire about the start up costs to date of this “Free” School and specifically the cost of purchasing Steart Farm as a location. I was told to contact the Local Authority. The LA responded immediately, as expected: they have no involvement in the land purchase process – so why was I told to contact them?  My freedom of information request to the Department for Education said they would release the figure when they are ready. Why, when it is public money? (Ed note: this may tell you).

So what can you do to help? I urge you again to complete the Route 39 Community Consultation questionnaire at at the bottom of the page AND CLICK “NO” to question 3:

3. Do you agree that the Route 39 Academy Trust should enter a funding agreement with the Secretary of State of Education, so that the school can open in September 2013

All views expressed in the above response are personal but heartfelt ones.


* Freedom of Information responses received locally yesterday suggested that Route 39 numbers were way off the 100 they originally wanted, standing at 33. However, on Twitter, it seems that numbers may have now risen though no one in seems terribly keen on publishing actual figures.

D. J. Fitzsimmons


  • Mrs Rachel Rudd says:

    No to question 3

  • Mr Agincourt says:

    I’ve heard such arguments used against the wind farms near Barnstaple and Braunton. So to the farm providing to tourism I’m sure it does, but if the land is being sold for a school site the farm can’t be doing all that well as a camp site can it?

    Also I’m sure there are plenty of other sites nearby that tourists could use. I highly doubt that they or the Steart Farm where ever at full capacity. To suggest that this will have a knock on effect to the income of tourist related businesses is both Non-Sequitur and Post-hoc fallacies that we see so often. (info re hate filled – bile removed by moderator).

    I’m sure the building will be designed in such a way to complement the pictures surroundings, and such a fantastic site will undoubtedly inspire both students and staff to aspire to achieve the highest results.

    It has been proven time and time again that a positive and inspiring workplace will course people to achieve more, so I think this is a perfect location for such a school. When you think that a farm is in fact an industrial site purely designed for the production and collection of food. To look at it as anything else is naive and immature in the extreme.

    Being a Devon born and bred local for many generations I am not some random outsider speaking in ignorance. I know what a farm is, I know what it can do to the local land and the wild life there and I can tell you it is MORE harmful to the environment and wildlife than any school. That’s assuming everything is being done right on a farm if not it can have devastating effects on the local environment and wildlife.

    Let’s stop for one second to see who will most likely be affected by this the most… Local academy/trust schools like Budehaven and Bideford College. I’m sure that this campaign of hate is being heavily pushed by the heads of school using all their local influence they can muster, as this will affect their intake which affects the money they get from the government.

    It also puts another school into the local area which is likely to have some very high achievers due to the nature and size of such a school. It has been proven that free schools work and produce better results than larger more corporate school how just churn out C grade students like some conveyor belt.

    ( comments about specific headteachers and about the editor being a fool deemed unacceptable by the moderator).

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