Luton Girls’ Academy: DfE squanders £180k on failed free school

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The government wasted £180,000 on a failed free school project in Luton, it has been revealed.

The Department for Education axed plans for Luton Girls’ Academy just seven months before its open date, stating that “insufficient progress” had been made on the scheme for an all girls secondary school and sixth form.

Speaking to the Luton News this week MP Gavin Shuker said it was “bonkers” the DfE gave the go-ahead for the project last June, after which 58 sets of parents listed the school as their first preference.

Prior to the axing the Herald & Post revealed that the school’s backers, Ace Trust Ltd, had not submitted a planning application for its preferred site on Kingsway, Luton.

It had also not identiified a temporary premises for the school’s September opening.

Following a request by Mr Shuker the DfE has now admitted that the abandoned school cost the taxpayer £180,000.

Edward Timpson MP, DfE undersecretary, said: “All free school projects approved to enter the pre-opening stage are paid a grant to support the project through to opening – the Project Development Grant (PDG).

“The PDG is essential to financially support the school during pre-opening. Where a project is withdrawn from the programme, payment of the PDG is stopped.

“To date, Ace Trust Limited has received two PDG payments amounting to £180,000 and the department will take steps to recover any unspent funds.”

Initial concerns about the school’s viability were raised back in October, when the Herald & Post uncovered that a site for the school had still not been located as the council closed its window for secondary school applications.

Despite this an academy document stated that children living in the ‘priority wards’ of Dallow, Saints, Challney and Biscot would be chosen over children living in other areas of Luton.

A fortnight later the Regional Schools Commissioner for North West London and South Central held a meeting with senior officers from Luton Borough Council to go over the school’s progress.

Formal discussions to axe the school began after the New Year, when the DfE began discussions with LBC’s children and learning director.

After written correspondence on January 5 a discussion over the phone took place on January 14, when the impact of the free school’s cancellation on school places in Luton was conferred.

Mr Timpson added: “This ensured the views of the council were taken into account prior to any decision being made, and the impact on pupils was carefully considered.”

The DfE then decided to withdraw its backing of the school on January 26, formally notifying Ace Trust Ltd the next day.

In the end the decision was made a month before Education Secretary Nicky Morgan was due to decide on a funding agreement with the school.

This was set to take place on March 2– the date on which secondary school places will be offered across the country.