The Labour Party has serious concerns about free schools.
This is not, however, because we dislike innovation, or because we are against schools having more control over their destiny.
Nor are we indifferent to the ambitions of young people who want the very best that education can offer.
But we do worry that free schools will absorb resources badly needed for investment elsewhere and we worry that they are not properly accountable to the communities they are supposed to serve.
In my constituency there is a proposal to open such a school for 16-19 year olds.
My worries about Chapeltown Academy are based on what I see as poor use of scarce resources and on a concern about the quality of the provision on offer.
The first question is whether there is any need for this institution when our top priority should be the primary sector. For instance, Oughtibridge Primary has struggled recently to accommodate all the children living in its catchment area. At the same time, and at the other end of the scale, Sheffield has more than sufficient capacity for its 16-19 year olds, thanks to falling numbers post 16.
So why is the Government thinking of funding a new and very expensive sixth form provision when we so desperately need new primary school places?
But judicious use of public money also relates to the quality of the offer and on this point there are two main issues. First, the proposed location of the school is odd, to say the least. Not many of us will think that schools should be shoe-horned into a warehouse and yet this is what the Academy intends to do, starting out in a building only just vacated by a haulage business. The other concern relates to teaching capacity, as so far, according to the information published on the Academy’s website, it has only recruited seven members of teaching staff and it is unclear just how many of them have experience of teaching A levels. I have therefore written to the Principal, asking for details about the qualifications, the experience and the sustainability of the planned teaching provision.
So far, evidence suggests a less than impressive take up of admission offers from the Academy. In my view, the Government should abandon this ill-judged experiment and think more carefully about how best to spend taxpayers’ money.