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Yorkshire colleges teaming up to fight new free school proposals

Principal and CEO of Kirklees College Palvinder Singh jpg

Colleges across West Yorkshire are joining forces to oppose controversial plans to open a string of new free schools.

Seven free school applications – two apiece for Leeds and Bradford, one in Keighley, one in Kirklees and one in Wakefield – for new colleges or sixth form colleges have just been lodged with the Department for Education (DfE).

The county’s existing further education (FE) providers, however, fear that these new institutions would cause unnecessary disruption for learners that could reduce, rather than increase, their opportunities – and lead to job losses.

They have also studied projected growth figures for school leavers and concluded that they simply do not support a demand for new providers. Leeds City College’s market intelligence, for example, shows an 8% increase in the number of the city’s school leavers between now and 2026, a modest rise which existing colleges are well-positioned to cater for.

Bradford College, Keighley College, Kirklees College and Wakefield College have all, like Leeds, submitted letters of opposition to the DfE’s Free School Assessment Team. These West Yorkshire Consortium of Colleges (WYCC) members fear that the introduction of the new FE providers could actually cause some colleges to close.

A destabilising threat

Principal and CEO of Kirklees College, Palvinder Singh, said:

“These proposed new free schools are not needed as the necessary provision already exists locally.

“Should the proposals go ahead, there is a significant risk that existing providers will have to make savings, requiring cuts to the curriculum and staffing, and some will no longer remain viable.

“Whilst there is a slight increase in the predicted number of school leavers in North Kirklees in 2026, and this remains for a few years, that number then reduces in subsequent years. Most of this growth would have already happened before any new buildings were even completed.”

The Wave 15 free school applications currently being considered include an iEXEL Elite STEM 6th Form College for Females and a BRIT School North for Bradford, a Northern Technology Sixth Form in Kirklees, and an Edith Cavell College in Wakefield.

New niche providers ‘will not meet wider needs’

In Leeds, plans have been submitted for a Dixons East Leeds Sixth Form and Thorpe Park College. And at Keighley, there are proposals to open a New College Keighley.

Chris Webb, CEO & Principal of Bradford College, said:

“It’s disappointing that these proposals continue to progress without real engagement with the colleges that are already offering similar provision. The lack of strategy, in terms of failing to weigh up local need versus existing resources, risks creating facilities that will fail to recruit and lead to investment going to waste.

“With the city already served by three colleges, two specialist sixth forms and 15 secondary schools offering post-16 education, Bradford is able to demonstrate a breadth of high-quality provision that meets the needs of young people, catering for their next steps into higher education, apprenticeships or employment.

“Investment in new ‘niche’ providers will not support the wider needs of those leaving school, but rather worsen a divide within the city which will hinder longer term prosperity.”

The area’s five existing FE providers teach more than 50,000 students between them. They also have decades of experience of working together to coordinate their plans. Luminate Education Group , which runs Leeds City College and Keighley College, believes it is this existing framework that the government should be focused on funding.

The wrong focus – and an unwelcome distraction

CEO of Luminate Education Group, Colin Booth, said:

“These free school applications are an unwelcome and potentially destabilising distraction that could cause real damage.

“Where the real growth in the region will be over the next few years is actually in T Levels and other vocational courses – and that is where the Department for Education’s attention should be directed.

“The fact is that no-one is actually doing any planning or research into what is needed locally, or nationally, in terms of overall capacity or what type of extra capacity is needed in post-16 education and training.

“This policy and planning vacuum leads to catastrophic failures as can clearly be seen, for example, in how university technical colleges and national colleges have fared.”

Invest in the quality that’s already here

Sam Wright, Principal and Chief Executive of the Heart of Yorkshire Education Group which includes Wakefield College, Castleford College and Selby College, added:

“We currently serve nearly 4,000, 16-19 year old students across the Wakefield District and have proudly done so for over 50 years. We, alongside other local colleges, are high-performing education providers who are equipped to meet the skills needs of our communities both today and in years to come.

“If they come to fruition, these free school proposals have the potential to severely jeopardise the ability of our colleges to not only thrive, but indeed survive. The government should reconsider investing this level of funding and support into existing providers, which would enable us to grow, align our curriculum offering, increase our resources through recruitment, and expand our facilities to meet any rises in demand.”

Little information, including about their proposed locations, has been shared yet about each of the proposed new colleges.

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