Critics fear that free schools come at a cost

Bids to open institutions could take up colleges' scarce resources

Darren Evans

The government's flagship free schools programme is attracting growing interest from further education and sixth-form colleges keen to get involved.

Two FE colleges already run their own free schools, while a third won permission to open one earlier this year. Two more FE colleges and one sixth-form college are expected to apply when the next round of bidding opens on Monday - the last chance before next year's general election.

As interest in the FE sector increases, however, serious questions are also being asked about whether colleges should be diverting time and resources away from their core mission in order to open new institutions. Even the Association of Colleges warned of "risks" in the process.

Writing on the TES website, Frances Wadsworth, principal of Croydon College in London - one of the institutions that will join the bidding next week, along with New College Swindon and New College Pontefract - argues that quality of teaching should be the priority.

"It is what and how children are being taught in schools that is important, with what support and quality of teaching, rather than where it is being taught," she writes. "The emphasis has to be on great teaching and committed teachers that stretch, challenge and inspire children. A good college as a school's sponsor can clearly bring experience and expertise - a significant unique selling point."

Ms Wadsworth said that Croydon College's free school would be set up as an 11-18 academy on its existing campus. The New Croydon Academy would have 180 pupils and would help to address the area's "startling need" for schools, she added: by 2018 Croydon is expected to have a 43 per cent shortfall in places.

Since 2011, more than 300 free schools, many set up by parent or teacher groups, have opened or been approved in England. Although many colleges and college groups act as sponsors for free schools and academies, only a few have set up their own so far. South Staffordshire College and Hadlow College in Kent each run a free school, while Richmond upon Thames College in London won permission to open one earlier this year.

However, the FE sector's involvement in the programme has not always been successful. Earlier this year the Barnfield Federation in Bedfordshire announced it was splitting its academies and free school from their original sponsor, Barnfield College, after a Skills Funding Agency report found that the college had wrongly claimed almost pound;1 million for students it did not have on record.

Critics have warned that colleges should stick to what they know. The University and College Union's head of FE, Andrew Harden, said: "We are probably not alone in wanting colleges to focus on their core mission of providing a decent education for the local community, rather than setting up free schools or academies.

"As well as the obvious concerns about funds being diverted to these projects, we are not convinced that these kind of federated structures, with institutions feeding into each other, always deliver what's best for the students."

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said colleges were autonomous institutions and as such were not actively encouraged or discouraged from opening free schools.

"There are a number of risks in opening a free school, including diverting colleges from what they probably see as their primary role of educating and training 16- to 18-year-olds and adults," he added. "However, there also opportunities to share services, to improve efficiency and for colleges being able to develop CPD for their staff."

Mr Gravatt said the AoC believed that free schools should only be established where genuine local demand existed because of poor quality local provision or rising demographics. They should also be able to demonstrate value for money.

"It also doesn't make sense to create new sixth forms in areas where there is good or outstanding provision and the institution won't be sustainable when the set-up funds run out," he said.

`Our free school meets a specific need'

South Staffordshire College was one of the first FE institutions to establish its own free school. The college's Rural Enterprise Academy opened to students two years ago this month.

The academy now has almost 150 pupils out of a potential student body of 300, and principal Graham Morley described it as "one of the best things we have ever done".

"Our free school was set up to meet a specific need for the land-based industries in Staffordshire, coupled with the need to address educational standards in the area," he told TES. "We knew we had a meaningful vocational offer for students from the age of 14."

At the time, colleges were not allowed to enrol students who were that young, and Mr Morley said he chose the free school route rather than setting up a university technical college so that South Staffordshire College would not be "hamstrung" by having to partner with a university.

"I am not a particular advocate of the free school movement," he said. "It just became a vehicle for us to do what we wanted to do quickly and easily."

Despite the relative ease of the venture, the college still had to go through a "long bureaucratic process" before the academy opened in September 2012. However, Mr Morley said that the positive experience of the learners had made it all worthwhile.

And although Mr Morley had no other colleges as a reference point at the time, he now receives regular calls from principals who are interested in setting up their own free schools.

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Darren Evans

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