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Council bids to take special school build into own hands

A council wants to take the construction of a new special free school into its own hands to gain more “certainty” that it opens on time.

Ministers approved a 100-place, all-through school in Bracknell Forest last year, but although a site has been approved, building work is unconfirmed.

The council wants to “take responsibility for construction itself to enable certainty around the timescale,” council documents state.

Schools Week investigations have revealed the sluggish opening-rate of such schools, despite a capacity crisis. In 2022, just one of 37 new free schools announced in 2020 had opened in its permanent home. 

Normally, the government oversees new school projects.

Stuart McKellar, the council’s executive director of resources, said “this is a complex process which understandably takes time,” but the council is “fortunate to have the in-house expertise”.

He added: “We are therefore making a case for it to be self-delivered, which will enable us to have certainty on the timing of its opening.”

The council is finalising a self-delivery case to submit to the Department for Education. 

Tom Legge, director of Premier Advisory Group, which supports free school applications, said the move is “not common” but also “not unique”. 

Some large multi-academy trusts (MATs) have self-delivered free schools. 

In 2019, Essex County Council was approved to deliver two special free schools. Its infrastructure and delivery team had a “strong track record of construction of new school buildings, delivering on time and within budget,” council documents state.

“It’s understandable that, with the myriad challenges facing DfE capital teams, local authorities that feel they have the capacity, capability and supply chains feel well placed to deliver these projects,” Legge added.

But he said the “increase in complexity” can lead to “a new set of challenges”.

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