Plug pulled on military school

Reporter: Karen Doherty
Date published: 03 March 2014

‘Victory for common sense’
THE Government has pulled the plug on a controversial military free school set to open at Fitton Hill in September.

It says Phoenix, “would not be able to meet the rigorous criteria set for fee schools”. The news has been welcomed by Oldham Council as a “victory for common sense”.

The borough already has too many secondary school places and the council had opposed the school, fearing at least one of Oldham’s new multi-million pound academies could be under threat if the Phoenix opened.

Phoenix was given the green light to open in May after initially being turned down a year earlier by the Department for Education.

Staffed by former forces personnel — who didn’t have to be qualified teachers — it was set to open in the former Marland Fold Special School while a new building was constructed next door.

It promised a “grammar school” education with a strong emphasis on literacy and numeracy, sport, adventure activities and competition.

It aimed to embody Army values — but insisted that the playground wouldn’t be a parade square, nor a recruiting ground for the armed forces.

The school has been unable to recruit a £60,000-a-year head following the resignation of principal designate Rick Hodges in September following his failure to get a reference from a previous employer in Canada.

Tom Burkard, who led the Phoenix project, said in a statement: “We regret to confirm the DfE has withdrawn funding for the Phoenix Free School and it will not open this September. We deeply appreciate the support we have received from everyone who has worked hard to make this project a success, and we apologise to the parents and pupils who will inevitably be disappointed.”

Free schools are state-funded but independent of local-authority control, run by groups such as parents, charities or businesses. Criticisms have included not employing qualified teachers and opening in areas where they are not needed.

Councillor Amanda Chadderton, cabinet member for education, said: “The potential risk to the future of young people in our borough was central to our objections. We always welcome vision and new ideas, but didn’t believe this scheme offered either. We felt strongly the issue of surplus school places was key.

“This year there were 1,108 surplus secondary places in Oldham. Phoenix would have added another 780 places. We felt Phoenix would produce major problems which far outweighed its unproven benefit. It would have also undermined years of long-term planning and financial investments that have already been made in education facilities and provision in Oldham. We didn’t believe this offered value for money to the taxpayer.”

Councillor Chadderton added: “We will, of course, be at hand to provide support to any families who need an alternative school place for their child.”