A NEW free school is set to open in Burnley next month but will only be around a third full, according to the charity behind it.
Work on Burnley High School's temporary home at Parkhill Business Centre, off Padiham Road, is currently under way.
The site has the capacity for the first intake of 90 Year Seven pupils, but school leaders said only 30 to 35 children had signed up so far.
The new school is due to open on Monday, September 8.
Burnley MP Gordon Birtwistle has heralded the new school, run by the Chapel Street Trust, as a fresh start for local education but union leaders have slammed the move as a waste of money.
It comes as Burnley already has hundreds of empty desks at its superschools.
Union leaders said the low intake showed the new school had disregarded low demand for places in the area. Last year Lancashire County Council revealed there were likely to be several hundred surplus places.
And now the county council’s three-tier forum for Burnley has been informed the figure for this year is nearer to 757.
Borough and county councillor Marcus Johnstone, a former schools’ cabinet member, said: "It sounds like it's not a viable school. Such a small group of pupils mean the curriculum will be so narrow. The whole project should be scrapped. Free schools were just a vanity project of the former education secretary and Burnley parents have said loud and clear they want no part of it."
Lancashire NUT Division Secretary Sam Ud-din said it showed a wasteful approach to the funding required.
He said: “This will have taken a lot of money for a tiny intake of pupils. The NUT has repeatedly warned the Department for Education against the sort of profligate spending which comes with every free school application.
“It drives a coach and horses through council plans for the equal distribution of resources to all children. We warned there was not sufficient demand for school places in the Burnley area. An ordinary school would never have received permission to spend rent and construction money on a non school building while another one is being refurbished. When ordinary schools want to spend money it is called ‘waste’ but when the DfE do it, it is not seen that way. To refurbish two buildings for thirty or so children is ridiculous.”
The free school is also preparing to move into the former Hameldon High School when further construction is completed.
The pupils will be taught by qualified teachers and six teaching assistants in project-learning based lessons.
Executive Principal Elizabeth Haddock said the small intake was similar to the first year of their Manchester sister school which has gone 'from strength to strength'.
Mrs Haddock and headteacher Dawn Forshaw said they were excited about plans to introduce project-based learning for small intimate groups.
Project-based learning means dedicated lessons will only take place for English, Maths and Science. The whole national curriculum is taught, but introduced as part of specialised projects the children work on over the course of a few weeks.
Mrs Haddock said the intake would enhance their emphasis on group learning.
She said: “We have quite a small, intimate school ethos. Our project based learning has been phenomally successful elsewhere and we look forward to succeeding in Burnley.
“After an initial settling in, the children will be working on projects to design bridges which will employ aspects across the curriculum. We will introduce other projects as we get to learn more about the children and what they enjoy. It is very successful at getting the children engaged and learning.”
Headteacher Dawn Forshaw added: “For us it is all about getting the children interested and excited about school work. Parents need more choice and some parents don’t want their children in traditional, fact-based lessons. Most children achieve more when they are given a project or task to achieve.”
Mr Birtwistle, however, said he hoped it would, in time, stop children being ‘bussed out’ for schooling. He said: “It is not much of a surprise that numbers are low.
“Without actually seeing the finished building, or knowing anyone who has been there, some people will be cautious. I think it will go on to build numbers.
“Also, the children who are there this year will get the best education possible with such little class sizes. From my perspective parents need more choice to prevent the bus loads of children who leave Burnley every day to go to school somewhere else.”
Les Turner, Lancashire’s representative for the National Association of Headteachers, said: “That sort of intake is what a primary school would expect to see. It must demonstrate that there isn’t the demand in Burnley for another high school.
“When school places are in the central control of a local authority it is very easy to see where there is a shortfall. When provision is broken up it is hard for one provider to know what demand is out there”.
The Department for Education said costs for the new school were not available until the school was up and running.