From traffic concerns to fears over standards the Bedford Free School opened its doors this morning amid a wave of controversy.
Wearing their new uniforms, 200 pupils and their parents gathered at the school, in Cauldwell Street, ready to start the new term in their new surroundings.
The school claims that 75 per cent of children attending the school will be walking, cycling or taking the bus to the site as part of an agreement with the council to keep traffic levels in the area from rising.
Principal Mark Lehain said: “I need to thank so many people who have stood firm behind the principle of parental choice in education, behind the belief that we took the right decision in choosing this building to allow pupils from Bedford as well as Kempston to have an alternative senior school option and behind the idea that schools are about the bond between pupils, parents and teachers. We have that bond here at Bedford Free School.”
Plans for the school started in 2010, when Wootton Upper School teacher Mark Lehain and a group of parents formed a campaign in Kempston to set up a Free School under new government legislation.
A Free School is a school that is free to attend, funded by the taxpayer at government level but not controlled by the local authority.
Supporters of the schools claim that they give parents and pupils greater choice in how they want their children to be educated.
But the road to Bedford’s Free School has been a rocky one. Planning permission for a change of use at the school site has been denied twice by Bedford Borough Council’s planning committee.
The committee twice refused to consent to the changes after expressing concerns about traffic congestion and safety in the Cauldwell Street area, although council officers had recommended the plans for consent.
But Free School chiefs vowed to open anyway, claiming that they had sought legal advice that said it was safe to do so. The planning decision has gone to appeal, although enforcement action has been threatened by Bedford Borough Council.
Others have opposed the school on other grounds, claiming that it is a waste of resources, and that the money could be better spent creating much needed primary school places.
Labour Party activist Charles Bailey has been very outspoken about the plans, and claims that the Free School is unnecessary.
He said: “There are plenty of secondary school places in the town already and the Free School cuts across the normal dividing line in the three-tier system.
“So it not only destabilises the work done at the upper schools it has an impact on the population of the middle schools.
“It is diverting funds at a time when school places are needed at a primary level.
“What happens when the current generation of enthusiasts get bored? It’s a fatally flawed idea.”
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Weather for Bedford
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 13 C to 24 C
Wind Speed: 12 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 12 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 12 mph
Wind direction: North east