This is how Lancashire plans to meet demand for school places in the county

Lancashire County Council has laid out how it will go about building new schools if it proves impossible to meet demand for places by expanding existing facilities.

Friday, 12th June 2020, 10:42 pm
Updated Friday, 12th June 2020, 11:46 pm

It is a decade since the authority last commissioned a new-build school – Trinity Church of England and Methodist Primary in Buckshaw Village – and government legislation now limits the options available to local authorities which want to develop such proposals from scratch.

There is a presumption that all new schools are set-up under the so-called “free school” model, operated by a sponsor, which could come in the form of a charity, faith group or even a group of parents.

Cabinet members agreed to adopt the requirements after being presented with a report which highlighted the potential need for additional schools in the county – and not just extra classrooms.

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The county will need free school sponsors to put their hand up to run any new facilities

The authority has so far created around 4,000 new places at established schools in order to cope with growing demand in some areas and will continue to do so. However, the cabinet report revealed that the policy may not always prove to be the most suitable option.

“In some parts of the county, where [there are] expansion limitations because of the nature of the schools themselves – or there is significant new housing development on large sites – it actually may be better for us to create a new school rather than to expand the existing ones,” explained County Cllr Phillippa Williamson, cabinet member for education.

The process of identifying a free school operator can take almost a year before a brick is even laid.

The education secretary has the final say over the sponsor, but County Hall can state its own preference based on a local assessment of any candidates which put themselves in the frame.

Alternative routes to establishing the school include creating a so-called “voluntary-aided” facility, with either a faith or non-faith group. However, County Cllr Williamson, told a meeting of cabinet colleagues that no such applications were currently on the table – and neither have any proposals been put forward via a central route which is open to potential sponsors who approach the Department for Education directly.

Although not a legal requirement, there is an expectation that potential sponsors hold a public meeting so that they can set out their stall to the public about their plans for a school and answer any questions.

Like all local authorities with education responsibilities, the county council would have to cover the start-up costs of a free school in its area and manage the ongoing financial viability of the institution, together with with the operator.

County Hall would ultimately have to underwrite any new school if it faced difficulties the short term.

However, the cabinet report notes: “In the medium term, the liabilities could significantly accumulate [and] would then impact on the authority’s finances,” stressing the need for stringent viability assessments at the outset.

A new primary in Clitheroe is likely to be the first school commissioned under the new arrangements, subject to the outcome of a six-week consultation which has been approved by cabinet.