'Why the secrecy over free schools?'
A CAMPAIGNER who twice tried to set up a free school in Stoke-on-Trent has accused the Government of a culture of secrecy and of repeatedly moving the goalposts.
Pat Smith claims the system is stacked against parents and community groups, as they don't have the financial clout and experience to navigate the complex bidding process.
Her comments come just as Education Secretary Michael Gove and his department have been ordered by an information tribunal to reveal details of applications to open free schools.
The Government has previously refused to disclose these details, despite The Sentinel and other organisations lodging Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests.
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Mrs Smith, from Nantwich, said: "Everything has been so shrouded in secrecy. I think it's partly because they keep changing the rules. I went through the application process twice and you'd do one thing, then new rules would come out. I don't think the Department for Education (DfE) even knows its own criteria."
She drew up plans for a new secondary school in Bucknall after losing a fight to stop Mitchell Business and Enterprise College being replaced by an academy.
Mrs Smith, a former chairman of governors at the college and a community action group hoped to take over the old Mitchell building.
"I couldn't say I was given specific reasons for the application being rejected," said Mrs Smith.
"But they did comment on there not being enough parents signing up and it being too reliant on set-up costs. The people who tend to get their applications approved are large organisations, like school chains. If you're an ordinary community group, it's 20 times harder."
So far, more than 70 free schools have opened across England, with a further 102 approved for 2013 and beyond.
But there is only one in Staffordshire – the Rural Enterprise Academy, in Penkridge, near Stafford. While in South Cheshire, Sandbach School re-opened as a free school in 2011.
In Stoke-on-Trent, at least three free school bids have been rejected, including one for a special school because it would have cost too much to convert a building.
The latest group to apply wants to open a Muslim faith school in Longton. Asif Mehmood, chairman of the trust behind the bid, said: "I'm hopeful it will be successful."
The Sentinel submitted an FOI request to the Government last year, asking how many proposals had been submitted for free schools in Staffordshire, Stoke-on-Trent and Cheshire East, the types of groups applying, and the grounds for rejecting applications.
At the time, a DfE spokesman said releasing this information could 'deter' future applicants and 'undermine the programme'.
But the Government last week lost an appeal to prevent the British Humanist Association gaining similar information about free schools.
A DfE official said they were now considering the tribunal decision and would 'respond in due course'.
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