For years now each new round of school admissions has brought heartache to families who fail to get their children into their first choice.
But in Whiteley, near Fareham, a group of parents and teachers is now taking matters into their own hands. The Whiteley Academy Group has been created in a bid to open Hampshire’s first free school in a town long plagued by a shortage of school places.
If it’s successful, it will provide schooling from reception age at four through to GCSEs at 16.
Free schools are one of the government’s flagship education initiatives, designed to give parents and teachers a greater say in setting up and running schools.
Andrew Saunders, former teacher and father of four, is part of the group. The 43-year-old says: ‘I have been interested in something like this for about the past four or five years, since previous plans for a new school in Whiteley fell through.
‘My eldest went to Whiteley Primary, but unfortunately our others couldn’t get in. At one point we had all four children in different schools – you can imagine what the arrangements for the school run were like every day.’
And with his experience as a school inspector, Andrew knows what to look for in a school.
‘As a parent and an inspector I often see children lose ground in year seven,’ he says, ‘which is why I like the idea of providing a school for both primary and secondary age children. It’s a very attractive idea.
‘At the moment a significant number of parents move out of Whiteley because of the lack of secondary school provision and we considered this ourselves, but we love Whiteley and we didn’t want to move.’
The group is also keen to emphasise it aims to complement rather than compete with existing schools.
‘I am doing this for my children, but I am also doing it for Whiteley because I love this town,’ Andrew says.
‘We want to bring together all the very best approaches and strengths in education.’
Two public meetings have been held in Whiteley to gauge wider public feeling for the project. On Saturday, more than 250 people attended a meeting at Whiteley Community Centre, where most people supported the idea.
Andrew adds: ‘The parental response to the campaign to set up a new school in Whiteley has been overwhelmingly positive. There is clear expression of wide support for both primary and secondary provision.’
The Whiteley Academy Group, including a range of volunteers from a broad background, is proposing to create the independent, government-funded school in response to parental demand for more school places in the town.
If they feel enough public backing is there, directors Kevin Walls and Geoff Walls will submit the proposal to the Department for Education in June. If given the green light, the school would open in September 2012.
Geoff Walls, currently vice-principal at Havant Academy and a former Whiteley resident, says: ‘This is a very exciting time for the local community.
‘If the application to the Department for Education is successful, Hampshire’s first free school will shape and transform the lives of young people in Whiteley.
‘This has been the dream of so many Whiteley parents for a long time. We are putting together a strong proposal which we hope will make this dream become reality.’
Free schools can be set up anywhere from existing school buildings to local community facilities, and although a building for the new school hasn’t yet been confirmed, the group is looking at properties on the nearby business park.
Kevin explains: ‘A number of vacant business park premises have been viewed by Partnerships for Schools, the organisation responsible for establishing suitability and feasibility of proposed sites for the academy.
‘We really hope the government sees the merit and importance of funding the conversion costs and long-term lease for a building that we believe would make an excellent learning environment.’
With Whiteley straddling two districts, it has led to problems in the past. But local politicians on both sides have backed the plans.
Fareham MP Mark Hoban says: ‘This is an exciting opportunity for Whiteley parents. The coalition government’s free school policy gives us a real chance of meeting the demand in the local community for more school places in Whiteley. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to shape the future of the community and I would urge local parents to take it.’
Meon Valley MP George Hollingbery adds: ‘I back this scheme 100 per cent because the issue of school provision in Whiteley has been a major concern for parents for many years now.
‘It also shows what a community can do for itself given the chance to take control of its own destiny by using these new rules created by the coalition government.’
Whiteley Primary can turn away more than 40 children a year because it doesn’t have the capacity to cope. Councillor Sean Woodward, leader of Fareham Borough Council, says: ‘Whiteley has waited a long time for the provision of extra school places.
‘The primary school is oversubscribed and there is no secondary school provision in the area.
‘I’m absolutely delighted to be able to support the initiative to create the Whiteley Academy free school which is a very exciting development for Whiteley’s children both present and future.’
Free schools can choose to follow the same national curriculum as state-run schools but may also opt to offer additional subjects or specialisms.
The proposals for Whiteley Academy include specialisms in enterprise, innovation and leadership.
· For more information go to newschoolforwhiteley.co.uk
FIRST WAVE OF SCHOOLS
The first wave of free schools is expected to open this September, just 15 months after education secretary Michael Gove invited proposals from groups interested in setting up a new school.
Free schools are non-profit making, independent, state-funded schools. They can be primary or secondary schools and could be located in traditional school buildings or community spaces such as office buildings or church halls.
They could be set up by a wide range of proposers – including charities, universities, businesses, educational groups, teachers or committed parents.
Under the new system, teachers in free schools will not necessarily need to have qualified teacher status.
They will be funded on a comparable basis to other state-funded schools.
They will be subject to the same Ofsted inspections as all state schools and held to the same standards.
The admissions arrangements must be fair and transparent – they are expected to be open to pupils of all abilities from the area and cannot be academically selective.
Proposers must prove there is evidence of parental demand, such as a petition or declaration from interested parents – and a clear business case. The secretary of state will consider each proposal on its merits.
Whiteley is served by the 600-pupil Whiteley Primary School at Gull Coppice, which has been chronically over-subscribed for years.
Round trips of up to 16 miles a day to schools in Locks Heath and Titchfield have become regular fixtures of parents’ lives as a result.
And secondary school age youngsters are forced to travel to Henry Cort Community School in north west Fareham each day.
But the unusual nature of Whiteley – it is split between two district authorities – have led to earlier plans failing to get off the ground.
A plan to build a new 210-pupil school foundered in 2007 when Winchester City Council refused to release recreation fields it owns for development - the site favoured by Hampshire County Council and Fareham Borough Council.
The county claimed an independent survey showed Winchester’s preferred site, known as the Bunney land, would require extra drainage work, boosting the cost of the project by a further £3m. As a result, £4m earmarked by central government for the scheme was lost.
Plans for a new school in Whiteley have been in limbo ever since, dependent on how north Whiteley develops. Up to 3,000 new homes are expected to be built north of the existing residential area in coming years, with all the infrastructure that would bring.
But no concrete proposals for a new school have yet been made public.