Government defers opening of free school in Radlett

Site of approved Harperbury Free School in Radlett

Site of approved Harperbury Free School in Radlett - Credit: Archant

A second major education project in St Albans has been left in the lurch by the government.

Five years after pulling the plug on funding for an expansion of Oaklands College, the opening of a free school in Radlett planned for September has been postponed.

The governors of Harperbury Free School were “shocked” by Schools Minister Lord Nash announcing he was deferring its opening until September 2015, as his department had failed to secure a site for it.

That is despite years of planning by local residents and supporters, and Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove stating in May 2013 that Harperbury was among more than 100 free school applications approved across the country.

The school’s preferred site is within the grounds of the former Harperbury Hospital off Harper Lane, Radlett.

The site is owned by the Department of Health and has been under negotiation with the Department for Education since June last year,.

But Lord Nash has now asked his department for a full feasibility study into building the school there.

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Chairman of the governors Clive Glover said he was amazed that it had not been done already.

He said parents were disappointed, but securing the site was “one part of the free school process out of the hands of proposer groups”.

The school was given the go-ahead for 120 students a year by Mr Gove, and planned to open its doors to Year 7 students in September.

Clive said the governors were determined to push ahead with the school and would work closely with the government to ensure the opening went ahead in September 2015.

He added that Lord Nash had given three options for the school – cancelling the project completely, building it on an industrial estate off a busy road in Radlett, or postponing it.

Clive said: “We are acutely aware of the disappointment this will cause to the hundreds of families who have supported us over the past few years and in particular the 194 families who have applied for places for their children starting this September.”

The Department for Education’s education funding agency had “badly let us and our parents down”, he went on.

Clive added: “It hasn’t been turned down but they have taken nine months to decide to defer it. It’s incredibly frustrating.”

One school supporter said it was “disgraceful” that the opening had been deferred, adding, “the government only ever seems to put money first rather than the future of our children and future generations!”

The school was founded to serve families in Radlett, Shenley, London Colney, Park Street, Bricket Wood and Borehamwood.

St Albans MP Anne Main said she was “bitterly disappointed by the announcement, particularly given all of the school’s hard work to get ready for September 2014.”

She said the former hospital site had been “discussed with the department for a long time; for this decision to be made so late in the day is unacceptable.

“Furthermore this appears to be the result of the department dragging its heels.”

She and Hertsmere MP James Clappison have sent a joint letter to Lord Nash expressing their shock and disappointment and to seek clarifications for the school and families affected.

Oaklands College was recently forced to pursue a controversial housing scheme for its Smallford site - yet to be decided by the district council - to help pay for a much-needed expansion of its campus after the government pulled the plug on £60 million of promised funding.

• A Department for Education spokeswoman said the Harperbury Free School project “still has our full support, as a response to parent demand for a high quality alternative to existing education provision in the area”.

She confirmed the opening has been deferred to September 2015, to allow for further work to be carried out “to secure the most appropriate site for the best price”.