Free schools sector poised for more FE college sponsors

Two FE colleges and one sixth form college are expected to bid to open their own free schools when the next round of Department for Education (DfE) bidding opens, FE Week can reveal.

Croydon College and New College Swindon want to open free schools with sixth form provision, while New College Pontefract — a sixth form college — is hoping to open a free school for 16 to 19-year-olds.

Croydon College’s planned New Croydon Academy would be situated on its own campus, taking on 180 students a-year, starting with just the year seven cohort in 2016.

New College Swindon is looking at a free school and sixth form on a separate site, and New College Pontefract wants to open a free school sixth form college for 1,200 learners in Doncaster.

The colleges are expected to hand their free school proposals into the DfE when the bidding window opens, on September 29 — closing on October 10.

If the bids were successful, all three free schools would open in September 2016, adding to the FE sector’s existing free school offer with South Staffordshire College and Hadlow College already running one each. Richmond upon Thames College won permission earlier this year and plans to open a free school in 2017.

Free schools are state-funded schools which are not required to follow the national curriculum, operate outside of local authority control, and answer directly to the Secretary of State for Education.

Frances Wadsworth, principal at Ofsted grade two-rated Croydon College, said: “This is an exciting opportunity for Croydon. Together, we can provide resources, expertise and world-class facilities to benefit the pupils, the community and the future prosperity of the borough and beyond.”

A vision statement on the proposed new free school’s website said it planned to deliver “teaching and learning through the use of digital literacy and science”.

Amanda Walton, head of marketing and customer services at the grade two-rated New College Swindon, told FE Week: “We were approached by the MP for Swindon North Justin Tomlinson and the council and asked if we wanted to put together a bid.

“We felt that having run an FE college we were in a good position to do it and we wanted to help and support learners.”

The new school, which would have capacity for 1,500 students, will have a focus on business and enterprise, but would follow the national curriculum, she said.

New College Pontefract principal Pauline Hagen told FE Week: “We had a few areas in mind, but we chose Doncaster because in many ways it’s very similar to Pontefract — it’s a former mining community where
the manufacturing base has disappeared, leading to worklessness and low expectations.

“We’ve had experience of dealing with that in Pontefract, of raising aspirations of parents and students, and we thought we had a lot to bring to Doncaster, where most existing providers are grade three or four.”

The college, rated outstanding by Ofsted, had been motivated to get involved with the free schools project, she said, because sixth form colleges were in danger of being overlooked.

“Sixth form colleges are not part of the government’s thinking at the moment — we were a 1970s creation, but we are still top-performing providers,” she said.

“We want the secretary of state to notice what we do and appreciate what we do and so we are embracing the government’s agenda.”