Free school closure 'premature'

A senior governor at a free school which has been ordered to close has called the decision "premature".

Discovery New School in Crawley, West Sussex, which opened just two years ago, has been told it must shut its doors on April 4, making it the first such school to close.

Schools Minister Lord Nash informed the school its funding agreement was being terminated in a letter to the chairman of governors, Chris Cook.

The closure is likely to be seen as a major blow to the free schools programme, a flagship education policy of the Coalition government.

It was one of the first 24 free schools to open in 2011, but was declared failing and placed in special measures by watchdog Ofsted in May.

Lord Nash said he had expressed "grave concerns" about standards last month and asked the school for a statement on the action they were taking to address this.

This had been considered, but Education Secretary Michael Gove was "not satisfied that the action the academy trust proposes to take is sufficient in all the circumstances".

Finance committee chairman Mark Beard, 43, said the move to pull funding was "more about the politicians than the kids".

He added: "We feel that we're being brushed under the carpet - get a problem child out of the way before we get too close to a general election campaign.

"The decision was premature. It was far too early to show any progress from the changes we were implementing."

Anna Turner-Smith, 38, who has two children in the school, found out about the letter only two minutes before seeing her daughter in a nativity play.

She said: "The school for us has only ever been a positive one. I've never had any problem. My children thrive in here.

"This is the education I chose for them, and the one I expect to keep. I know I'll never read another Ofsted report again."

She called the way the announcement had been made "disgusting" and said the Government was "messing with children's lives".

However parent Samantha Bateman withdrew her two sons at the start of the school year because she predicted problems.

Ms Bateman, 39, said: "I'm devastated for the parents, but I'm also devastated for the kids, and I'm very angry that all this has happened.

"Right from the word go I could see problems. I could see this coming. The first thing that I noticed was that a lot of family and friends connected with the school were running it.

"There was no oversight and this didn't seem quite right. We were promised an individualised programme so that our children could learn at their own pace, and that there would be small classes.

"They said there would be a real community spirit and that it would be child-centred. Everything they promised wasn't delivered."

A response posted on Discovery's website said the school's community was "deeply disappointed that Lord Nash has refused to give us the opportunity to continue as a free school".

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesman said: "Since the school was placed in special measures by Ofsted in May, we have monitored progress closely.

"The trust has not provided evidence they are making the changes required. Lord Nash has today notified the trust that the department will terminate its funding agreement at the end of the spring term."

Lord Nash's letter said that during a visit to the school last month, Ofsted found that "no progress in the quality of teaching and learning had been made since the original special measures judgment in May".

It added: " The number and nature of the actions and milestones to be achieved demonstrates that the staff are currently unable to deliver teaching and learning even at the most basic level with the consequence for the pupils of continued inadequate teaching for an unacceptable length of time."

In its statement, the school, which is part of the Montessori movement, said everyone connected to it had worked "tirelessly" to present an improvement plan to the DfE that it believed would lead to rapid changes.

"Our children, staff and community love this school and we'll be considering our next steps over the coming days," it said.

"We'll be seeking to understand - in detail - why our plans have fallen short of Government expectations. And, why we're not being given the gift of time to deliver upon our promises."

The decision means pupils will now have to find a new school place by April.

The DfE insisted it was working with West Sussex County Council to ensure youngsters had "suitable alternatives" in place.

The council said: "We will work with parents to ensure that school places are found for pupils in accordance with published admission arrangements and we will accommodate parental preference where possible.

"Although we have had no control over this situation, every effort will now be made to try and minimise disruption to children's education.

"We hope that a meeting for parents can be arranged shortly to discuss options available to them."

Crawley Conservative MP Henry Smith said: "I am deeply disappointed by the Department for Education's decision to close Discovery New School from next April and am disturbed by the failure of management and lack of support.

"As a father myself, I share the great concern which will be felt by parents and have called in Parliament for the Education Secretary to both ensure his officials work with and assist West Sussex County Council to find suitable school places for those children affected, in addition to seeking assurances that the school buildings will be used for education purposes going forward."

Today's move comes just days after inspectors warned that a second free school, Al-Madinah in Derby, is "in chaos" weeks after it was placed in special measures.

The Muslim free school hit the headlines earlier this year after a whistle-blower claimed schoolgirls were made to sit at the back of classrooms and non-Muslim female teachers were pressured to wear head-scarves.

In October, Ofsted inspectors produced a hard-hitting report branding the school "dysfunctional" and placing it into special measures.

A strongly-worded and highly critical follow-up report said inspectors had found "no signs of improvement in the school". Regarding the quality of leadership and management, it concluded "this school remains in chaos".

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) said: "The blame for the closure of this school lies squarely with Michael Gove and his free school programme which has failed to ensure that schools opened under the policy can provide a decent standard of education.

"Coming on top of the highly critical report on free schools by the National Audit Office (NAO) this week, David Cameron needs to show some bold leadership and announce a pause in the programme. No new free schools should be allowed to open and serious consideration needs to be given to bringing existing free schools under the accountability mechanisms provided for by local authorities."

Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said: "In his terrible rush to roll out the free school programme, David Cameron has abandoned high standards and basic safeguards - and the pupils at the Discovery Free School have paid the price. David Cameron is damaging standards by allowing free schools to operate under a complete lack of local oversight, transparency and accountability and by allowing them to hire unqualified teachers."

Andrew Snowdon, who founded the school with his wife Lindsey, blamed Ofsted and Mr Gove's department for the problems at Discovery.

He told Channel 4 News: "The real failing is one of an out-of-control Ofsted and a Department for Education that hasn't always sung from a single song sheet or provided adequate support at the right moments.

"We were trying to do something very different here and always looking for short-term measures and quick results doesn't always produce what you want."

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