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Free school to be closed after six chaotic years

Dozens of children will have to find new schools after Minerva collapse

23 March, 2018 — By William McLennan

Michael Gove

A FREE school that has been wracked with problems from the day it opened is to be closed, raising questions about the policy at the heart of the Conservative’s education reforms.

Minerva Primary School in Praed Street, Paddington, will shut in July after six years of floundering, leaving parents searching for a new school.

Westminster North MP Karen Buck said it was a “further blow to children and parents” who have suffered since the school opened.

The Labour MP, a former shadow education minister, said the closure of the school, which consistently failed to fill classrooms, was “inevitable,” adding: “This school could never be justified on the basis of pupil numbers and never got above half full. It is an example of what can go wrong when an ideological fixation on free schools triumphs over the need to plan to meet need. It is heart-breaking to think how much money was spent on setting this up unnecessarily when so many of our other schools are losing staff as their budgets are squeezed.”

The free school model, introduced by former education secretary Michael Gove in 2010, allowed parents or charities to open a school that would be outside the control of local authorities, answering directly to the Department for Education.

The Constable Education Trust opened CET Westminster in 2012, running classes from an office block in Edgware Road. Problems soon emerged and the crisis was raised in parliament in 2013, as parents removed their children following a heated parents’ meeting that “descended into chaos”.

John Pugh, then a Liberal Democrat MP and former teacher, said at the time that the school was “marooned” without the support of Westminster Council. In December 2013 the director of the CET, Ronda Fogel, resigned.

Ofsted said in 2014 that the school “requires improvement” and academy chain Reach2 were parachuted in to take over from CET and turn around the school’s fortunes.

In a statement on the closure, Reach2 blamed the poor location of the campus, which restricts pupil numbers and has no outdoor space. They said classrooms were only “half full” making it “extremely challenging for the school to be financially viable”.

They said in a statement: “From the outset, it has had a challenging time with both site issues and pupil numbers.

“This site restricts the number of pupils, which itself limits the school’s ability to operate at full capacity. The site also has no outdoor space or children to play and is not purpose built for education. These factors have had a significant impact on pupil numbers, which has been compounded by a fall in pupil numbers across the local area.”

Damian Hinds MP, the education secretary, will have the final say on the school closure, which is expected to be made next month.

The Department for Education has already indicated that it would support closure.

Westminster Council said in a statement: “The Minerva Academy, as a free school, is independent of Westminster City Council and they have taken the decision to close. Their decision will not prevent any of its current pupils from receiving the educational opportunities they need and deserve.

“We stand ready to ensure that every pupil will be offered a place at a local school rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, and we hope to offer every family a choice of alternative schools.”

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