SHADOW education secretary Tristram Hunt criticised plans for a Steiner free school in Stroud during a trip to the town on Thursday (March 27).
In an interview with the SNJ, the shadow cabinet minister reiterated the view expressed locally by Stroud Labour Party that the school is not needed because there is already an oversupply of pupil places in the Five Valleys.
Speaking during a visit to Archway Comprehensive, the high-ranking Labour politician said in contrast to the current coalition Government, his party would only allow what he called ‘parent-led academies’ to open in areas where there was a clear need for them, defined by a shortage of school places.
Along with Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Stroud, David Drew, Mr Hunt was given a tour of Archway’s facilities by headteacher Colin Belford and introduced to pupils taking part in woodwork, textiles and geography lessons.
Afterwards, he spoke to representatives of the local media and fielded questions about the controversial Steiner Academy Five Valleys project, which, if approved, would cater for around 600 pupils aged between four and 16.
“We don’t believe in setting up free schools where you have got a surplus of places,” he said.
“We are very happy to see, and indeed we will encourage the development of, what we call parent-led academies in areas of need.
“Now as I understand it there are areas in need of new places in Gloucester and Cheltenham but here, where we are today, we have got 600 surplus places and so the addition of a free school into that ecosystem is not something we would be supportive of.”
Although Mr Hunt said he would not seek to reverse the reforms implemented by the Conservative education secretary Michael Gove if Labour were to triumph at the next election, he did say that his party would put a stop to the use of unqualified teachers in free schools.
He also said the free schools programme needed to become more ‘transparent and accountable’, and he voiced concerns that Mr Gove was ‘trying to politicise OFSTED’ because the education secretary was worried the schools watchdog was adopting a ‘no fear, no favours approach’ to the inspection of the free schools which had been set-up on his watch.
The Department of Education is currently considering the plans for a Steiner free school in Stroud after the group behind the initiative submitted its application for it in January.
Explaining the reasons for Mr Hunt’s visit, former MP David Drew, said: “He is here locally because we want a very clear statement that where we have surplus places the Government should not be opening free schools because it is divisive and it is a poor use of taxpayers’ money.
“It’s not about whether he’s in favour of Steiner education, we are not anti-Steiner, it is just that we don’t need another school here in Stroud because we already have enough places and it will put some very good schools at risk of closure.”
In a statement, Tarra Gilder-Rai, finance lead for the project, said: “The current surplus of school places in Stroud District will diminish as the result of the new housing planned over the next five to10 years.
"Steiner Academy Five Valleys will ensure there is no shortage of school places.
The local authority is preparing to file a section 106 for a new primary school at Hunts Grove, and a second is being discussed for the development west of Stonehouse.
"With a total of 3,250 new houses planned, there will likely be an additional 1,625 children needing places at schools.
"The district’s current surplus cannot accommodate this many children. Steiner Academy Five Valleys will be able to provide some of the additional places needed.”