Government backs new Soham secondary school despite local opposition
- Credit: Archant
The government intends to push ahead with a new secondary school in Soham despite opposition from Cambridgeshire County Council and existing schools.
The plan would see the St Bede’s Inter-Church School Trust open a new 600-place secondary free school in September 2023.
The minister responsible for free schools, Baroness Berridge, wrote to the county council last month to say that, against the council’s advice, she is recommending the plan goes ahead.
She said: “Having reviewed the risks involved with proceeding with the free school I have decided that this project should continue towards an opening date of September 2023.”
She argued there is a need for additional school places, that a new school operated by an Ofsted-rated outstanding provider “will help raise standards even further,” and that she would like to “offer parents more of a choice which includes a faith school”.
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Cambridgeshire County Council’s children and young people committee resolved on Tuesday (November 10) to support a response outlining its opposition to the plan.
The council’s service director for education, Jonathan Lewis, told the committee he is “extremely concerned” about the plan for the new school.
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He said: “We are very keen to work with St Bede’s, it’s one of our fantastic outstanding schools in the county, but the situation we find ourselves in is that we are extremely concerned about the impact a new school will have on other schools in the area, particularly as we see good performance across those areas and we’ve seen improvement and good outcomes in recent times.
“So our worry is about destabilising the local education system.”
The council questions the need for a new school in that location, and says any need for additional pupil places can be accommodated through expanding existing schools.
A council report says: “The Soham proposal came about as a result of the Department for Education’s (DfE) property arm identifying a potential site in Soham. The DfE then proceeded to build a rationale for establishing a free school there.
“In short, the Soham free school proposal did not originate from a basic need argument but rather from the DfE’s desire for a well-respected and successful single academy trust to open a free school after its application to open one at Waterbeach was turned down.”
St Bede’s is a Christian faith school in Cambridge. Making the case to open another school in Soham, its headteacher, Alistair Day, told the committee the school is the only church secondary in Cambridgeshire and that over-subscription “denies” many families that choice.
He noted the school’s achievement as reflected in its “outstanding” rating from the schools’ regulator Ofsted, and highlighted its “Christian ethos”.
He said the trust would “continue to work closely with other schools for the benefit of the communities we serve” and with the county council.
He argued “there is unlikely to be any significant detriment from the new school opening” and said pupils would be attracted “from a wide geographical area”.
Councillor Lucy Nethsingha said Mr Day’s comments implied that the trust accepts there will be some detriment to nearby schools.
“I think the whole proposal is a disaster,” she said, adding there is “an enormous difference” between having a church school in a city compared with a smaller town, where there are fewer children.
She said the government minister’s letter is “extremely disingenuous” to say there is a need for places requiring a new school, arguing that conclusion is based on an assessment across the whole of East Cambridgeshire.
She said she believed a new school would attract more children from its immediate vicinity – mainly Soham – which would reduce pupil numbers and growth at Soham Village College, saying competition between two schools in a “relatively small town” can be “destructive”.
“The chances are always that one is perceived as being better than the other,” she said, which is “extremely unhelpful for the children of the town”.
Cllr Nethsingha also questioned the travel arrangements to the school, saying in Cambridge a lot of children can cycle to school because of the greater population density.
She said: “If you look at that broader geography you are effectively always accepting that you are going to be bussing children around the county. And I think that is extremely costly in terms of children’s’ time, in terms of not creating a community spirit, and particularly importantly at the moment in terms of the environment.”
Mr Day said the school would be built well and will have a low-carbon footprint once built. He said a new railway station at Soham will improve the connection by public transport, and that people in the area will be able to travel a shorter distance to Soham than into Cambridge to attend a faith school. He said currently buses are used to bring students into the school in St Bede’s, and that a new school would reduce those journeys into Cambridge.
Lis Every, a county councillor representing East Cambridgeshire, said she has “every admiration” for the school in Cambridge, but said she is concerned about the location of the new school and how well it will work with other schools in the area “following what has been really rather a contentious process”.
She said there has been “long-standing and unanimous opposition from our local secondary schools” to the plan, adding it is “likely to cause a significant amount of disruption” and “presents a hugely significant threat to Soham Village College,” and draw students and capital funds from other schools.
Samantha Hoy, a councillor representing Wisbech, expressed disappointment that the trust had considered but ultimately decided against locating the new school in Wisbech.
“It all stacked up and the boxes were all ticked for it to go there [in Wisbech], but unfortunately they didn’t want to and they have decided on Soham, and I just think it’s a shame that it appears to me that they didn’t want to go in an area where there was basic need and have chosen an area where we are saying there isn’t,” she said.
Councillor Joan Whitehead said school funding is determined by pupil numbers, and with a new school “you could end up with a number of struggling schools in the Soham area, all of whom are not getting the money they need”.
She warned that a new school could be “detrimental” to other schools in the area.
Councillor Peter Downes said: “I’ve very concerned about the danger of having too many schools that are too small to be viable.”
He added: “We have a funding formula which works well if the school is reasonably large, but frankly a four form entry school isn’t large enough to provide a good range of options.”
He urged the committee to say to the government “that they don’t know what they are talking about”.
Chairman of the committee, councillor Simon Bywater, said: “I think this is a government issue that is being forced upon us.”
Baroness Berridge’s letter says that in response to “anxiety” expressed about the need for places in the area, the trust has agreed to alter the plan, reducing the school from six forms of entry to four, which would leave a capacity for 600 places.
But she added that future growth in the surrounding area means the school “may still not meet the need for all places enabling other local academies to expand where appropriate”.