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New Hampstead 'free school' could solve school places crisis

PUBLISHED: 16:29 12 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:04 07 September 2010

A HAMPSTEAD church is making a bold bid to solve the acute shortage of primary school places in Camden by establishing the borough s first free school next year, writes Susanna Wilkey. With the strong backing of its parishioners, St Luke s Church on Kid

A HAMPSTEAD church is making a bold bid to solve the acute shortage of primary school places in Camden by establishing the borough's first 'free' school next year, writes Susanna Wilkey.

With the strong backing of its parishioners, St Luke's Church on Kidderpore Avenue has applied to the Department of Education to set up a free school to cater for 15 children in each of the seven primary year groups.

The much-touted Conservative free school policy allows charities, businesses and groups of parents or teachers to set up state schools outside of local authority control.

If this application is successful, the school could be one of the first of its kind to open in the country in September next year.

Teacher and member of St Luke's Church, Penny Roberts, said: "The church will provide a school that Camden needs and parents want. We see the school as an extension of what we already do with youth and after school clubs.

"There is a massive shortage of primary places in Camden and we see this as a really good way to use our halls to meet this huge community need.

"We have said from the beginning that we want to work with Camden and we want them to see us as part of the school family and part of the solution to the lack of places."

The crisis over the shortage hit rock bottom last year when some 80 children were left without a school place in July, prompting parents to start a campaign for a new school in the Hampstead area where the problem is most acute.

The council was forced to set up the Courthope Education Centre in Gospel Oak to deal with the overflow of children.

St Luke's says the parents of 74 children have already expressed an interest in applying for the school, which will be ''for children of all faiths and none.''

Ms Roberts said: "If we go ahead with this we will consult with Camden, the London Diocesan Board and parents about admissions and the curriculum, as well as extracurricular subjects."

The church is expecting to hear from the government in the next fortnight as to whether it is considered to be viable.

Parents who have campaigned hard for a new community school have cautiously welcomed the news as long as the new school does comply with Camden's policies, especially on admissions.

Like academies, free schools will have the power to set their own admissions policy as well as freedom from the National Curriculum and the ability to set their own pay and conditions for staff.

Leila Roy, from the campaign for a new school in Camden, said: "If they take admissions on distance and do work with Camden and become part of the school family, then that is good.

"If they do what they say and work with the community, it sounds like a really good idea and it will really help with the places shortage."

And Luca Salice, from Camden CASE, the campaign for state education, added: "If St Luke's want to open a school for children of all faiths then that is good news but the fact remains that once they are open, parents will not have the same rights as they have in other schools.

"Ideally I would like to see the local authority open a new school.

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