Southampton schoolchildren could be attending the region’s first mainstream ‘free school’ by as early as next year, the Daily Echo can exclusively reveal.
Plans have been unveiled for the Hope Community primary school in Southampton – making it the first in the area to be set up independently with direct funding from central government.
They are the flagship policy of Education Secretary Michael Gove who has set aside public money to fund schools which can be set up by any organisation including charities, churches and parents where they feel their community needs one.
The Hope Community School bid is being led by members of the City Life church, part of the New Community church network who have put together the proposal for a one-form entry primary school to cater for children aged from four to 11 in the city centre.
It is in response to council figures that show a lack of school places in the city centre SO14 postcode to accommodate the number of school-aged children in the coming years.
According to the projected figures based on birth rates in the city there will be 71 children who live in the city centre in 2015/16 who will not have a place locally. A year later that rises to 119.
The council is currently consulting on expanding schools in the east of the city to cater for the extra numbers.
But those behind the bid say this will involve youngsters travelling some distance to get to school and children having the disruption of using temporary accommodation and converting spaces like music rooms and learning areas.
They say the obvious solution is to build a school in the city centre where it is needed, but that is not an avenue open to the Local Education Authority.
Billy Kennedy is senior leader at New Community who along with Paul Woodman, leader at the City Life church, is fronting the bid.
Mr Kennedy said: “Local authorities do not have and are not being given the funding to build new schools.
“However, that money is available by going down the free school route which is what we want to do.
“The city centre is in desperate need of a new school.
“There are more families in the city centre now who are living in flats, many of them will be reliant on public transport. Having their own school here in the city centre is what the community needs.”
So far they have lodged their initial plan with the Department for Education and now have until May to submit their detailed bid.
If successful the project could start this summer with a project team employed to indentify and acquire land within the postcode area.
The team can also then start employing staff and setting up a governance structure in much the same way as a board of governors operates.
The bid is also not starting from scratch as through links with the church they have linked up with the Hope Community school in Sidcup, Kent which opened last year.
The plan is to use their model as the basis for the Southampton school’s bid including their curriculum and structure.
Mr Kennedy said: “We are not the educational experts in this. It is our job to get the bid together and prove the community needs and wants a new school here.
“Churches have been setting up schools from day one, there is nothing new about that. The expertise comes in when the bid gets the go ahead.
“We want to give education to our children, it is a passion and a vocation of the church to work in the community and provide for their needs. We see the need and we are stepping up.”
The team are now planning open days and information evenings for prospective parents. They have also been holding meetings with councillors in a bid to foster a working relationship should the bid be approved.
“We are fully committed to working with the LEA in Southampton and other schools to provide the best for the children who come here. We also want to foster good links with businesses to really ground the school in the community and give them a broad curriculum and opportunities.”
He added that the school would employ fully qualified teachers – one of the main criticisms of free schools which, because of their freedom, can set their own policies.
Should the bid win approval the project team would start looking for parcels of land but in the short term the school could be run from Central Hall, which is owned by the City Life church.
Initially the intake would just be reception year children and increased each year as they go through the school. Within two years the children would hope to relocate to their purpose-built building.
n To find out more log on hopeschoolsouthampton.org or telephone 023 8038 5125.