ONE of the region’s Labour MPs has backed the Government’s ‘free schools’ - admitting it might “upset” many of her colleagues.
Darlington MP Jenny Chapman said she supported such schools – set up by parents, teachers, or the charitable arms of companies – provided they are built where places are scarce.
And she told MPs: “I do not produce a lot of antibodies at the mention of a free school. We are a pragmatic bunch in Darlington and will go where the money is.
“These days, if we want capital money, we make ourselves a free school – ‘Thank you very much, we’ll have one of those’. We have that and it is going fine.
“There was not a peep out of me as a Labour MP or the Labour council. We will get on with it and, if it gets us the outcomes we need for young people in the town, that is what we will do.”
Ms Chapman spoke as Tristram Hunt, Labour’s education spokesman, confirmed that the Opposition will axe the free school programme, if it wins power next year.
Nick Gibb, the Conservative schools minister, said: “I welcome the speech made by the honourable member for Darlington and her pragmatic support for the free school in her constituency - in contrast to the views of her front-bench team.”
Free schools are unpopular with most Labour activists and a number have been hit by scandals over low standards and alleged fraud.
In Durham City, there has been huge controversy over Durham Free School, which, last year, had just 37 pupils - at a staggering cost of around £25,000 for each of them. It now has 90.
Up to £4m of taxpayers’ cash could be spent on a permanent home for the school - even though it will take at least nine years to fill with pupils.
In the debate, Ms Chapman said one Darlington school was “a free school in name only”, because it was established by a local academy to create space for pupils with special needs.
A second was a private school that converted, because its “finances may have been a little tight”.
Ms Chapman said: “As a good socialist, the opportunity to take away a fee-paying school and make education available to all was not something I was going to let pass by.
“We are quite relaxed about different forms of governance in education, as we can prove by our record. It is about ensuring that we spend the money where it needs to be spent.”
Labour has left the door open to “great teachers, committed parents and innovative parents” opening new schools in certain circumstances, where there is a need.
But Mr Hunt told the Commons: “Labour is committed to ending the free schools programme and refocusing spending on areas where it is needed most.”