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Will free schools stand the test of time in Camden?

13:00 05 May 2014

Cllr Angela Mason. Picture: Polly Hancock

Cllr Angela Mason. Picture: Polly Hancock

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Controversy has dogged free schools since their inception four years ago, but in Camden it is hard to deny their success with parents.

Reception places for September at the borough’s two free schools – St Luke’s CofE School and Abacus Belsize – were heavily oversubscribed, so much so that St Luke’s, in Hampstead, was named as one of the most popular in the UK by the Department for Education (DfE) earlier this month.

But as a relatively new model, it still remains to be seen if free schools will be a long-standing force for good in the borough and, most importantly, for its children.

With battle lines drawn so distinctly, the Ham&High has asked governors, a free school campaigner and a leading Labour councillor for their thoughts.

Claire Craig, 38, who will submit an application for a joint primary and secondary free school in West Hampstead on May 9, said she was forced to campaign for a new school in 
response to a shortage of primary and secondary places in Camden.

Clare Craig, leader of the West Hampstead International Free School campaignClare Craig, leader of the West Hampstead International Free School campaign

“People like the idea of schools free from local authority control because they can do things in innovative ways,” said the hospital consultant, of Fortune Green Road, West Hampstead. “Camden’s education policy is to keep all schools the same.”

Earlier this month, only 26 Camden children were left without a primary place for September – a marked improvement on last year when nearly 100 did not have a space.

Labour’s Cllr Angela Mason, cabinet member for children, thinks there is no need for another free school in the north of the borough. She said: “The opening of St Luke’s and Abacus Belsize has helped, but the problem with them is that local authorities are not allowed to start up any schools themselves.

“We have seen that the number of unplaced kids is much lower than last year because we have expanded some of the schools. We are on course to meet the demand for places.”

The opening of St Luke’s in 2011 and Abacus Belsize, Belsize Park, in 2013 together created 45 extra reception places in the borough. There is little doubt that their creation has contributed to a rise in parents winning a place at their first-choice school.

Some 77 per cent of children were allocated a place at their first choice school this September, compared with 73 per cent last year. But the frees are already heavily oversubscribed, with St Luke’s receiving almost seven 
applications for each of its 15 reception places, while Abacus Belsize had nearly five for each of its 30 spots.

Anne Clarke, 37, a governor of Hampstead School, Cricklewood, who spoke to the Ham&High in a non-official capacity, said: “It is difficult to know if their popularity is linked to their autonomy from the local authority or if it is just part of a primary 
pupil place squeeze.”

The mother-of-two, of Ash Grove, Cricklewood, added: “Camden 
urgently needs primary places and free schools are not a reliable way to address this need, as we have seen with the shock DfE decision to pull their support for the Wren Street School, south of the Euston Road.”

But Penny Roberts, chair of governors at St Luke’s said she was “delighted” that the school, which was opened in response to a shortage of places, has helped to meet demand.

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