Free School Norwich: city centre site revealed

After months of speculation, it can finally be revealed that Free School Norwich will be based in the former Aviva building, Kings House, on Surrey Street.

The school, which education secretary Michael Gove recently confirmed would open in September, could be the first of many in Norfolk, with those behind it planning to hunt for sites in Great Yarmouth, King's Lynn and Thetford.

The Norwich school is being set up by eight parents, teachers and business people from the Norwich area, including retired Drayton First School headteacher Pat Howe and local politician and teacher Antony Little.

But the idea came from Tania Sidney-Roberts, a Cringleford-based teacher who will be the school's principal.

She said: 'We are delighted to have found and secured such a wonderful building to house the new school. It will provide a first-class learning environment for hundreds of Norfolk children for years to come.

'The close proximity of the building to Norwich bus station makes it an ideal location for parents from all over Norfolk who work in the city of Norwich and who wish to send their children to the new school.'

The school, which will cater for four-11-year-olds, will open to reception and years one, two and three in September, before filling up the other years to reach its capacity of 168 pupils in the coming years. It will be open for 51 weeks a year.

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Kings House is a Georgian former house, built in the early 1760s by Matthew Brettingham. It was used in recent years by Aviva, but has lately stood empty.

The government is paying for the lease of the building, which Mrs Sidney-Roberts said needed 'hardly any work' inside to make it ready to use.

Floor plans and plans for the garden/playground have been drawn up.

Mrs Sidney-Roberts said plans were also advanced for the 'extended school' element, which will see the school open out of hours, during holidays and on Saturdays to make it easier for working parents – with the rate likely to be as low as �3.50 per hour.

Free schools are funded directly by the government and have the freedom to set their own curriculum, opening times and holidays.

While, on the face of it, Free School Norwich is no more than a small primary school that is being set up, in reality it is the advance party of what could be an army of similar education institutions that promises to change the face of schooling.

Using an idea 'borrowed' from Sweden, the government has carried out a remarkably speedy campaign of red tape removal and opposition clearance to pave the way for free schools.

The Norwich project has gone from conception to birth in little more than 12 months. And scores more schemes are on the Department for Education (DfE) starting grid.

Free School Norwich will be open for 51 weeks-a-year and will provide relatively cheap childcare in evenings, during holidays and on Saturdays, to enable working parents to balance breadwinning and care without going bust.

It sounds like a good idea, and the waiting list for places shows that plenty of parents agree. But, as is the case with academies, the pockets of popularity are balanced by fierce opposition.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) is against free schools, with general secretary Christine Blower calling them 'divisive and unaccountable'.

She said: 'Free schools are not wanted or needed.

'It is high time that the government stopped playing with the educational future of this country based on nothing more than the fact that they can.'

But Mrs Sidney-Roberts said that the project was 'not political'.

She said: 'We've got people from all backgrounds involved in the school. We think it is providing a service that will help children and their parents. It's a dream come true for any teacher and a chance to meet the needs of people in the local community.'

Rachel Wolf from the New Schools Network charity, said a 'significant minority' of state schools were not good enough, and too many parents often had no choice about where to send their children – a problem that a growing network of free schools could help to solve.

A spokesman for the DfE said the NUT was 'blindly opposing' free schools before any had opened.

She added: 'Too often the poorest families are left with the worst schools while the rich can pay for good education via private schools or house prices. Free schools will give all parents, not just the rich, the option of a good local school with great teaching, strong discipline and small class sizes.'

What do you think about free schools? Write to Evening News letters, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE, email or join the debate about free schools by following @stevedownes1973 on Twitter.