By Linda Tanner, Education Correspondent
They say there is no need for the new school in north-west Bristol and claim it will lead to 300 empty desks in the Year 7 classes at four neighbouring secondary schools, resulting in a huge and unnecessary cost to the taxpayer.
The heads are concerned that the late decision on the free school has made it difficult for them to plan for the next academic year, because they do not know how many students they will have and therefore how much money will be available.
The Bristol Association of Secondary Heads and Principals has made its comments in response to the final consultation for the free school, which is aiming to set up in temporary buildings in former Government offices in Brentry.
The school has 150 places available for 11-year-olds and says it expects to fill about two thirds of them.
The secondary heads’ organisation says the year group moving on to secondary school this September is the smallest for many years, so schools were already expecting to have surplus places.
It says: “The Bristol Free School itself has not filled its places and yet, if the funding agreement is made, will be funded advantageously to provide places which are not required.”
“This overinvestment will be at a time of enormous financial constraints across the education sector and nationally.”
Three of the four schools most affected – Henbury, Oasis Academy Brightstowe and Orchard School Bristol – were built in the last 10 years under a private finance initiative which means they are being paid for by the taxpayer over 25 years. The estimated cost of each spare place is £450 a year, the heads say. The fourth school, Fairfield High, is also new.
“All four of these schools have sharply rising results, positive value added scores and students who make better than national average rates of progress,” the heads say.
“These schools serve a range of communities, including those that the free school wishes to serve. The effects of these additional places being created unnecessarily will be felt not just locally but across the city.”
They note the percentage of primary children who leave Bristol local authority for their secondary education has fallen from 22.4 per cent in 2007 to 12.2 per cent last year and say they all have new buildings and can provide a good education.
The group says only four secondary schools received any notice of the consultation, which is being carried out before Mr Gove decides whether to approve the free school funding.
They also fear the free school will be socially divisive. They claim although it has reserved spaces for applicants from Sea Mills and Southmead, it has targeted its continuing recruitment drive vigorously at primary schools in more affluent areas.
Clare Bradford, head of Henbury School, who has threatened to seek judicial review if the funding agreement is signed, has sent her own response to the consultation.
She says if the free school goes ahead, it should not be in September.
“It is far more likely to recruit more equally if it is part of the co-ordinated admissions procedures,” she says.
“The proposed size of the school is far too large for the numbers of students in the north area of the city, and will equally harm local schools which are providing a balanced and challenging curriculum leading to positive outcomes.”
The free school is seeking planning permission for temporary use of the buildings in Burghill Road, Brentry, from the city council at a meeting tonight (wednesday) and is expecting that Mr Gove will sign the funding agreement in the next few weeks.
The free school is run by a trust made up of parents from north-west Bristol and their partner the Russell Education Trust. If approved, it will be the first in the South West and the largest in the country.