BURNLEY is in line for its first free high school - in a borough which already has hundreds of spare secondary places.

And critics say the 'Christian ethos' scheme will leave the town's schools battling for pupils.

Already there are 747 empty seats in the multi-million pound Building Schools for Future sites.

But the group behind the new plans - including two local headteachers and a university professor - say their school would pioneer a shake-up in the education system.

They say it would focus on sustainability and science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, and create more choice for parents who currently send their children to schools out of town.

Headteachers Julie Bradley, from St Leonard’s, Padiham, and Dawn Forshaw, from Wellfield CE Primary, Burnley, have joined together with Professor Paul Clarke, The Life Church Burnley, Community Solutions Lancashire and the Chapel Street charity on the proposals for the 650-pupil Burnley High School.

Proposals are currently being drawn up before being submitted to the Department for Education in January, who will decide whether it can go ahead.

Simon Jones, national executive member for the National Union of Teachers, said: “More free schools and academies aren’t wanted or needed. It reduces the ability of the local authority to strategically plan and deprives other schools of much needed resources.”

A number of potential sites have been identified, but none confirmed.

There are currently 2,925 secondary school places across East Lancashire.

That figure is set to rise when the new University Technical College (UTC) opens next year within the Weavers Triangle development. The UTC, which will be managed by Training 2000 and cater for up to 600 14 to 19-year-olds from across East Lancashire.

Critics say some of the ‘superschools’, created under the previous government’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme are significantly undersubscribed, fuelling the concern that there will be too many empty seats in classrooms.

David Whyte, head at St Wilfrid’s CE Academy in Blackburn, which takes Christian children from the Burnley area, said more pressure would be put on schools to entice pupils.

He said: “It’s a landscape that’s changing dramatically and we have to accept that these changes are happening.

“If there are more places than students, then there will be more pressure to compete. It’s obvious that more pressure will be put on all schools.

“It’s good news for parents because they will have more choices, and to safeguard the future all schools will have to make sure they are delivering what parents want.”

But the group say they have been encouraged by the number of people expressing an interest.

Jeff Brunton, senior minister at Life Church in Burnley, is one of the people backing the plans.

He said: “We realise that there are surplus places but it’s about offering people choice.

“There are some fantastic schools and resources in Burnley, but people are still choosing to educate their children out of town.

“I’m very conscious that a lot of children are going out of town for high school education, mainly to St Christopher’s CE High School in Accrington and St Wilfrid’s CE Academy in Blackburn. There isn’t a high school with a Christian ethos in Burnley.”

The proposed school plans to extend the ‘pop-up farm’ programme currently run in Burnley primary schools - which encourages children grow their own vegetables, look after livestock, learn about biodiversity, keep bees, and test out energy, water and waste saving ideas.

Professor Paul Clarke, founder of Incredible Edible in Todmorden, was the brain behind the scheme and is on the steering group for Burnley High School.

He said: “No schools in the country focus on sustainability. The education system has stagnated and we aim to challenge the orthodox and do things differently.

“It would trailblaze the way for a new way of thinking. We hope to take it wider if it is successful.

“This isn’t just a case of throwing a few carrots in the ground, it could help further studies into genetics and genomes and other issues that will affect the whole world in the future.

“Whether it is approved or not, it has made people think about the structure of the education system.”

Russell Rook, CEO of Chapel Street, said the charity was approached by the small group who wished to form the Christian ethos high school, which could open as early as September 2014.

He said: “The community feels there is a need for a different type of school. There has been great investment into Burnley schools, but we feel there is an opportunity to do something new and exciting in the town.

“Subjects would be taught in a hands-on way rather than in traditional classroom environment. The high school would also have a ‘primary school feel’ with close working relationships with parents and the community.

“It will not just be good for Burnley, but a pioneering idea in the country.”