Herefordshire Council is disappointed to learn that the Secretary of State has decided to approve the creation of a Free School in Dilwyn. Whilst the council accepts that under current legislation it is for the Secretary of State to determine whether Free Schools should be created, the council had clear support from the wider community and other schools to close Dilwyn Church of England Primary School in 2011. The decision was endorsed by both the Diocese of Hereford and the Archdiocese of Cardiff.
The council continues to have grave concern over the financial viability of the new Free School, given that it currently has very few pupils on role. The local authority has not seen any evidence of sufficient demand to make it a viable school in the long term. There are surplus places in the surrounding schools, which are of high quality, as verified by OfSTED. Herefordshire Council understands that the Free School has been set challenging targets to increase the numbers on roll. If successful this would unfortunately mean taking pupils from other local schools which offer a wider and more sustainable education for the local communities.
Herefordshire Council is also very aware of the funding issues that all schools face and questions the equity of this decision in terms of the cost per pupil. It appears that the cost per pupil of this Free School is nearly twice the average cost of a pupil in other primary schools in Herefordshire. Under the new national funding formula for 2013/14 it is estimated that for 22 pupils the new Free School will be funded at approximately £7,700 per pupil. The average for Herefordshire is estimated at £4,028 per pupil.
Council services will be offered to the Free School on a chargeable basis, as is the case with other schools in Herefordshire, but the responsibility for the viability of the school, its quality and standards rests clearly with those that run the school and the Department for Education. The role of the local authority, and indeed local democracy is negated by the legislation.
Councillor Graham Powell commented “It is a decision which we would not have taken as a local authority. We have seen no evidence that the school will be viable and over the past year it has failed to attract significant numbers of pupils.
“It appears that the Department for Education has pushed through the approval to provide a financial injection into a situation which would otherwise have closed.
It remains to be seen whether this proves a successful venture, but it certainly carries a high degree of risk and it is hard to see how this benefits children and young people in Herefordshire.”