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Council leader’s fury as Michael Gove approves two Southwark free schools

Southwark Council leader Peter John has accused education secretary Michael Gove of "fundamentally undermining community local governance" by approving two new free schools in Southwark.

Michael Gove
Michael Gove

Of the 55 new schools approved by the Department for Education this week, two are in Southwark. Both plan to open in September 2012.

The Southwark Free School Trust says that its new primary school will be located "near Tabard Gardens/Great Dover Street". Confusingly, it says it will serve the "East Walworth, Livesey and Grange" wards even though its proposed location is in Chaucer ward.

The school's team includes Amanda Phillips, head teacher of Old Ford Primary School and Culloden Primary School in Tower Hamlets. The Southwark Free School has links to the Shaftesbury Partnership which was founded by David Cameron's former 'Big Society' tsar Lord Wei.

Compass Schools Trust says its secondary school will serve the Bermondsey and Rotherhithe areas.

"We are absolutely delighted to have got the go ahead for the school," says Patrick Shine, chair of the Southwark Free School Academy Trust board.

"It marks a significant step on the journey to opening the school, and reflects the confidence the DfE has in our vision. Of course the hard work is just beginning and we look forward to working with local parents and the community to create a successful school."

Southwark Free School has called an open meeting for local parents to find out more at 11am on Tuesday 18 October. The venue is yet to be confirmed but those interested in attending should meet at the Dover Castle at 11am.

Southwark's new secondary school will be run by the Compass Schools Trust, spearheaded by Peter Wilkinson who was until last month chair of Borough Market.

"We are absolutely delighted to have been given the go ahead to open a new school aimed at serving the interests of the local community in Southwark," said Peter Wilkinson this week.

"Too many children are having to travel considerable distances to get to school every morning; today's announcement will ensure that they have a good, local school that aims to help them fulfil their potential in the modern world and recognise that they have a stake in society with something positive to offer.

"We look forward to working closely with the existing local schools both primary and secondary and Southwark Council in helping translate our vision into reality."

However, Southwark Council's Labour leader Peter John reacted angrily to Mr Gove's announcement. Writing on Twitter, he complained that the Government and the free school promoters had failed to consult with the authority.

"Problem is – DfE have not spoken to us at all about these schools – and exactly what local campaigns or needs are they responding to?" he asked.

He added that the new schools "sound more like vehicles for their sponsors" than genuine community-led efforts.

"This is what localism is about in Gove's Britain – ignore local government and community and impose schools from Whitehall – CRAZY!

"It's time for this Government to start practising localism and not allow Gove and his officers to act as if local government does not exist.

"Am I angry about this?! Yes – it fundamentally undermines community local governance."

Speaking on Monday night at a meeting of Southwark's overview and scrutiny committee, the leader had calmed down slightly and called for a "compact" to be drawn up to allow the new free schools – and the borough's existing academies – to work in harmony with the council.

"It's ludicrous for the DfE to think that it can run all schools arcoss the country," he added.

Simon Hughes, Lib Dem MP for Bermondsey & Old Southwark, has given a cautious welcome to the proposed new schools.

"It is no secret that I think that free schools are not the best way to meet the urgent need for extra school places in the north of our borough," he said.

"If the Labour council had not taken so long to accept the need for more school places in the north of the borough, plans for a new secondary school could have sorted by now.

"I hope that nonetheless we can now get an agreement about the best sort of new secondary school locally. I want to make sure that it can be provided as soon as possible on the remaining available space on the Southwark College site."

• Michael Gove has also approved a bid to establish a new university technical college (UTC) for 14-19-year-olds at Southwark College's Bermondsey campus.

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