First ‘free school’ seeks to defy its critics

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Sheffield’s first ‘free school’ welcomes its first students tomorrow - confounding critics who claimed the venture would never get off the ground.

Chapeltown Academy is hoping up to 90 students will enrol for its inaugural year, studying a range of over 15 A-levels taught by a team of nine staff.

It aims to provide an alternative for the area’s more academically gifted teenagers, providing them with routes into leading universities and top professions.

Headteacher Rebecca Maxted argues that until now many ambitious youngsters have opted to enrol in sixth forms at schools like Tapton, Silverdale and High Storrs, rather than go to local provision at Hillsborough, Barnsley and Longley Park colleges.

“The project is rooted in this community and has been led by demand,” Mrs Maxted said.

“Young people have been leaving the area for other schools, often taking two buses and travelling for an hour or more to get there.

“Now they will be able to stay local and not lose two hours a day. Hillsborough and Barnsley colleges do a great job, especially in vocational education, but we want to be a small college solely focused on academic subjects.”

Critics of the project - most notably local MP Angela Smith - argue another sixth form isn’t needed, pointing out plans for sixth forms at Parkwood and Bradfield academies have been hit by lack of demand.

The new project’s location has also raised eyebrows - it is in an office block in the middle of a business park some 20 minutes walk from the middle of Chapeltown.

And opponents say the academy has sucked in precious funding which at a time of austerity would have been better spent on existing schools and colleges.

But Mrs Maxted said: “We are keeping students here who would otherwise go elsewhere, so we are attracting funding into this community - it will be a boost for the economy and local businesses.

“We are accessible. It is a 20 minute walk to the railway station and there are six bus stops within half a mile. With a nursery school already nearby we feel we are creating a new educational hub for this area.”

Plans for the second phase in a converted storage facility behind the existing premises include a sports hall, labs, a library, lecture theatre and dining room, a project to be completed over the next year which will cost several million pounds.

The vision is to have a learning centre with no more than 300 students, keeping class sizes small, and with a flexible working day running from 8.30am until 7pm.