THE gates of Greater Manchester’s first free school could open as early as next year after the Government gave Atherton Community School the go-ahead.

It is one of only 79 Government flagship free schools to open from 2012 onwards.

The announcement is a victory for campaigners who have been in a long-running fight with Wigan Council over the closure of Hesketh Fletcher CE High School leaving Atherton without a secondary school.

Over the last year, hundreds of localss and community leaders under the group Chapel Street and Atherton Community Consortium, campaigned and for a new secondary school in town.

Now, after winning approval from the Government, they say the school’s “top priority” will be to “achieve long-lasting success in school and society and in the workplace around the world”.

It is planned that Atherton Community School will grow to cater for 450 secondary school pupils, and also have a sixth form for 200 students.

The school will link with Fred Longworth High School, Tyldesley and Winstanley College.

Parent Jenny Naylor said: “As a parent that lives in Atherton and has four children, one of whom will be starting secondary school in 2012, I am more than pleased that Atherton Community School has the go ahead.”

Fellow parent and teacher Dawn Hurst, added: “I am certain that this new venture will be an inclusive and nurturing environment which will be capable of transforming the lives of the young people who attend.”

Dr Russell Rock, Chief Executive of the charity Chapel Street which has worked with the Atherton community on the free school plan, said: “It’s a huge honour fto work so closely with community leaders and members in Atherton.

“Having worked together for over one year on these proposals, the important work of creating the school that the community needs and deserves has now truly begun.”

The school location is expected to be announced in the near future.

Wigan Council’s Deputy Leader, Cllr David Molyneux said: “We will work with the sponsors to ensure that the school produces the highest standards."

Deputy Leader of the Conservative group on Wigan Council, Cllr James Grundy, said: "The local Conservatives are delighted that the people of Atherton have been successful in their application for a Free School. We wish this project every success and hope that it serves as a template for further such schools across the borough. It may be a Conservative policy that has allowed for the creation of a new school, but it is the people of Atherton who, through hard work and determination, will make it a reality."

Local councillor and school campaigner Cllr Norman Bradbury said: "This is fantastic news.

"The whole community has supported the campaign together with the heads of local primary schools, and together they have achieved this magnificent result, despite the opposition.

"This is an example of what people power can achieve if they don’t give in to the totally undemocratic regime operated by the Labour controlled Wigan MBC.

“Next year will see a new campaign for an Atherton Town Council which Wigan MBC would be well advised to grant, unlike in 2010 when they refused despite 82.7% of Atherton people voting for it."