ONE of the oldest private schools in the region will become a state-funded free school from next September, after its application was approved by Education Secretary Michael Gove.

Polam Hall School in Darlington, which was founded by Quakers in the 19th century, will become part of the town’s wider family of state-funded secondary schools.

Polam Hall is part of a wave of 38 new free schools approved by Mr Gove today (Thursday, June 18).

The school, which provides day and boarding education for girls and boys aged four to 19, will remain on its current 19-acre site on Grange Road.

Headmaster John Moreland said: “Our approval as a free school is fantastic news for us as an organisation and also for the additional young people to whom we can now open our doors.

“We give our learners confidence for life, with our ethos of genuine pastoral support and care, and our exciting curriculum, outstanding drama, music and art, and long tradition for outward-bound and sport.”

Chair of governors Sally Pelham said: “By opening our doors to all, regardless of ability to pay, we are honouring the life-enhancing vision of education set out by our founders.”

Mr Gove said: “Free schools are giving thousands of children from ordinary backgrounds the kind of education previously reserved for the rich and the lucky.”

Until Polam Hall becomes a free school in September 2015 it will continue to operate as an independent school.

All existing Polam Hall pupils, including those who start the school this September, will be guaranteed a place when the school becomes a free school in September 2015.

Darlington secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), Graeme Cook, criticised the move.

He told The Northern Echo: “This means public money is being used to support a failing private company. I don’t believe there is any other reason why they would become a free school if they were a successful private school.”

He predicted there would be a knock-on effect on local state schools and complained that small classes at the new Polam Hall Free School would be at the expense of larger classes in state schools in the town.