Everything we know about the Harperbury free school disaster

UPDATE 19 March. New data from Hertfordshire. Although local authorities can non longer build or even commission schools, they still have to keep track of the need for school places. Hertfordshire’s latest report (PDF) shows real and growing need for secondary places across almost the whole county in the next ten years. In Radlett and Bushey, the shortage peaks in 2022/23 when there’s a projected shortage of 181 places. That’s enough children to fill six whole school forms without places. It’s no wonder that the report prominently notes that the Harperbury Free School project has been cancelled. The area needs a new secondary school – and soon.

UPDATE 29 February. Harperbury vice chair Clive Glover has set up a petition. He wants Minster for Education Nicky Morgan to override Lord Nash’s decision and open Harperbury Free School. Sign the petition here. There are 303 signatories so far.

THE STORY SO FAR: It’s all over. The Harperbury Free School that aimed to provide 120 places per year for 11-19s from Shenley, London Colney, Radlett, Bricket Wood and Borehamwood & Elstree, has been thrown out by the Department for Education.

Clive Glover, one of the project’s founders and vice chair of governors, has written a Facebook post about it, which is well worth reading. I spoke to him at the weekend. Here’s the latest:

  1. It’s the minister’s decision. Schools Minister Lord Nash has decided that planning permission for the school is unlikely to be granted by St Albans City and District Council because the site is too small so he’s cancelled the whole scheme.
  2. It’s an EFA cock-up. The Education Funding Agency, the executive agency that dispenses £54 billion (yes, billion) per year on 3-19 education and is responsible for the Academy and Free School programmes, was responsible for launching the school. They didn’t understand the requirements and planned a project that could never have won planning permission. In an answer to a series of written Parliamentary questions from St Albans MP Anne Main, schools minister Edward Timpson vaguely blames the site’s green belt location for the cancellation but doesn’t acknowledge the EFA’s error.
  3. It’s final. There’s no formal way for the decision to be reversed and there’s no appeal process. The Harperbury group haven’t given up, though, and we may see a new or revised application, for this site or another one.
  4. It’s already cost a lot of money. Schools Minister Edward Timpson says “the combined capital and revenue cost of the project to date is £1,919,000”. Clive Glover says this almost certainly understates the actual cost.
  5. The problem hasn’t gone away. The local authority says that, by next year, there will be a shortage of places in secondary schools in the area. Bernadette John, an advisor at the Good Schools Guide, calculates around 90,000 children won’t be allocated their first choice of school nationally. Children from schools in the Radlett area are already dispersed to 57 different secondary schools – from Berkhamsted to Northwood. The council says they’ll need 500 new school places by 2022.
  6. The decision has big implications. The minister’s decision ominously suggests that he thinks it unlikely that any suitable site exists in the area. If that’s true, councils are going to have to look hard at their plans. How will the extra school places, doctor’s surgeries and leisure centres that are needed be provided if there’s no room? The Harperbury group commissioned research that identified over 60 sites in the area – from farmers’ fields to brownfield sites. Is none viable? And remember, councils can’t build their own schools any more, even when the need is evident. They must first seek proposals from academies and free schools.
  7. No children are affected and no one loses their job. After the plan was deferred for the second time last year, the Harperbury team decided not to recruit for 2016 and the headteacher and senior leadership team signed up for the second push were let go.

The core of three governors who have been looking after the project since the last deferral – Clive Glover, Sarah L’efquihi and Nick Eaves, have not given up but have not decided how they’ll respond yet. Hertsmere’s MP, Oliver Dowden, is meeting with the minister this week.

I’ll keep this blog post up to date as I learn more – and if you have any questions you’d like answered, leave them in a comment here or visit the Harperbury Facebook page.

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