Preston’s first free school could open later this year if plans are given the go ahead.
The £8m boys’ school, which will be called called Eden Boys School, is planned for the Universal House building in London Road, previously home to Shop Direct.
The Muslim faith school for 700 pupils is being proposed by Tauheedul Islam Faith, Education and Community Trust (TIFECT) – but those behind the plans insist it will be open to children of all faiths. Hamid Patel, chief executive of the trust said: “It’s a Muslim faith school which will be open to all faiths and no priority will be given to Muslim boys.”
Free schools are funded by the government but aren’t run by the local council. There are currently two in the whole of Lancashire.
The state-funded school is listed by the Department for Education as being in the ‘pre-opening stage’. It will cater for children aged 11-18 and bosses say will open following ‘community demand’.
Mr Patel, whose organisation already runs seven schools across the country, said: “We are hoping the site will get approved; it’s a fantastic site with lots of potential for development. It will contribute to the regeneration of the city centre as well.”
He said the first term would see the school open in temporary facilities, with the London Road building ready for the second term.
He added: “It’s a good building in a good location, there some remodelling work to do but the general fabric of the building is in good nick.
“We want the school to be at the heart of enterprise and industry. Maths and enterprise are the specialisms of the school.
“We want the school to be a place for aspiration and entrepreneurship.”
Meanwhile, critics of free schools say they are “not wanted and not needed” in Lancashire.
According to its website, the school will aim to open a sixth form by 2019 and run its own qualifications – The Tauheedul Baccalaureate – which it hopes will become fully recognised by the most selective universities.
It was initially suggested back in 2013 that the school would be for Muslim boys only and called Preston Free School but the faith criteria has been scrapped and the name Eden Boys’ Preston has now been chosen.
Mr Patel, who hopes the school will improve attainment for boys in the area, said: “We have now decided to drop the faith criteria all together. It will be open to all boys of all faiths, culture and non faiths.”
The charity has applied to Preston Council for a change of use of the building from offices which were previously used by call centre staff to a state-funded school.
Critics say there isn’t a need for more school places in Preston but Mr Patel said the new free school will meet long-term requirements of more places needed in the future.
Mr Patel said he would “provide reassurance” that the trust is committed to working with other schools to make sure there isn’t a “negative impact on the viability of those schools.”
But county Coun Matthew Tomlinson Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Schools said: “We only have a tiny number of free schools in Lancashire because we manage to plan school places quite well.
“Free schools are entitled to open wherever they see fit. It’s not something that is in my control or remit.
“If they want to open they are going to open and they will end up educating Preston youngsters.
“Preston itself isn’t short of school places but they obviously see a gap in an education market place.
“If and when the school opens we will be working with it.”
And Simon Jones, the county’s executive member of the NUT, added: “Free schools in our area are not wanted and not needed, they create absolute havoc within the local authority’s coherent planning for school admin places because they draw pupils from other schools.
“We know from other areas in Lancashire this has led to redundancies of our members. It’s a waste of public money.
“As well as taking pupils away from schools, it takes money away from other schools.”
Meanwhile Mike Hart, Lancashire County Council’s director with responsibility for school places planning, said: “As the local authority responsible for planning sustainable school provision in Lancashire, we have submitted a response to the Department for Education about the plans, as outlined in the consultation document, to establish a Muslim boys’ school in Preston.
“Whilst we can appreciate that the proposal would extend choice in terms of faith-based provision, we are not convinced of the need for another secondary school in Preston.
“The area is already well served by a diverse mix of schools, the majority of which are rated ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, and there is already significant spare capacity within those schools.”
TIFECT was set up in the 1960s. It runs a school the Tauheedul Islam Girls’ School in Blackburn.