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Who could have known that trying to set up a free school would be so difficult? Twenty-four free schools opened in September. Fifty-five of the 291 applications for a 2012 opening were passed by the Department for Education. Our school, Michaela Community School in south London, was one of them. We should be excited. But we're in limbo. We don't have a site. And without a site, we cannot open. 

Last month I said we held out hope that Lambeth council would see past any prejudices they might have and allow us to house our free school in an old empty school we had identified in Kennington. It was perfect. Desks and textbooks were still in the classrooms. For five years the old school has sat there unused. In the local estates and in Brixton market, people told us they were desperate for another school option. 

Then, soon after we approached the council for a building, they set a two-week deadline for developers to make offers. Lambeth assured us that they were keen to talk with us in September/October about the possibility of a free school. We believed them. A week before the free school approvals were sent out, the council exchanged contracts with a developer. Interestingly, I understand that the developer, the son of a Pakistani immigrant teacher who understands the need for school reform, was told by Lambeth that they were helping us find another site. He was concerned about us, and didn't want to destroy our hopes of setting up a school for the local community. 

Having made a deal that depends on planning permission, the council will now have to wait more than a year for its money.  The duty Lambeth has to the taxpayer to get the best price for the sale of a building appears to have been overlooked. By waiting one week to negotiate with central government they might have achieved a sale that would bring them the money much earlier than in any deal with a developer.

Last year, 433 Year Six students in Lambeth applied for a secondary school place and didn't get one because of the massive shortage. Even with the 120 places that we would have offered, the shortage would still have been large. Do councils not have an obligation to their electorate to provide school places, even if they are from a free school bent on providing an excellent education for deprived children?

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Chris Horner
November 5th, 2011
11:11 AM
Very pleased that this free school is not going ahead. Three cheers for Lambeth.

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