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Free school set up in wrong place, wrong time faces closure

The government faces losing nearly £500,000 owed by a troubled free school that waited four years to move into its £35 million permanent home but will now close due to “unsustainable” pupil numbers.

Documents seen by Schools Week also show that Parkfield School, in Bournemouth, had warned that it was struggling to compete with another free school that opened just three years ago.

Parkfield epitomises failures with the free school programme. 

Attempts to find the school a site in central Bournemouth were scuppered by planning difficulties.

Instead, four years after opening in 2013, the school moved onto a site next to Bournemouth airport, which itself was delayed amid asbestos issues and a credible unexploded bomb threat.

But Reach South Academy Trust, which took over Parkfield in 2018, said it was “not possible” to run the school as it was “less than half-full” and wrestling with a falling roll.

Its out-of-town location left the school “without a natural catchment area”. Being “located on the edge of an airfield [meant] housing is sparse”, the trust added. Most pupils travel in by bus or car.

School ‘struggled to compete’ for pupils

Trust board minutes from last July, seen by Schools Week, show leaders said the school “struggled to compete” with the “brand-new” Livingstone Academy, a free school which opened in 2021.

Education campaigner Andy Jolley said the closure “signifies another major failure in the Conservative government’s free school programme.

Andy Jolley

“Moving a school to an out-of-town site by the airport was a terrible decision, meaning Parkfield was never going to be viable. But its fate was sealed when the DfE chose to open another free school in the town centre.” 

Parents were told last week that ministers had agreed with Reach South’s proposal to close the school due to “unsustainable” pupil numbers.

Having “exhausted all possible avenues”, the MAT concluded that it was “simply not possible to run a school that is less than half-full, with a falling roll and no prospect of these numbers increasing”.

The all-through school had increased its secondary pupil intake to try and counter the fall in primary. But secondary pupil numbers are also due to fall from this year, leaving a “very challenging environment for the school to compete for limited pupils”.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council expects there to be 225 excess places in district schools in 2024-25, rising to 600 by 2030. 

The school was also affected by the axing of a bus route serving the area, the trust spokesperson added.

‘Sheer waste of money’

Reach South stressed that a final decision on the closure will be taken by the DfE “subject to a listening period and full assurance that all pupils that need one have been offered another school place by the end of this academic year”. 

But, as well as the disruption to families, Jolley said the “sheer waste of money” was the “most appalling aspect”. While “other schools go without, free schools like Parkfield received unprecedented funding levels”. 

Accounts show the school’s deficit stood at £337,000 last August, up from £287,000 the year before. The trust has confirmed it has “absorbed this deficit” – but it “will not be responsible” for £461,880 of legacy debts owed to the government. 

Free schools are funded on their expected pupil numbers while they are established, as opposed to their actual pupil numbers. If schools under-recruit, they must pay back the extra funding.

The government will now have to find a solution for the empty school building, too.

Schools Week revealed last year that the department had taken a £10 million hit after selling the buildings of failed free schools to mostly private property developers.

We also revealed in 2018 how £260,000 was spent on rent for Parkfield’s old building – despite it sitting empty.

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