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Exclusive: Free schools damaged by lack of 'joined-up' government thinking, warns sponsor

A former free-school sponsor has warned that the government’s flagship education policy is being hampered by a lack of “joined-up thinking” and planning, rushed implementation and insufficient support.

Ronda Fogel (pictured) made her outspoken comments in a TES interview after it emerged that both the London free schools she opened in 2012 had been condemned as not good enough by Ofsted.

She described the reports for CET Primary School Tower Hamlets and CET Primary School Westminster as “disastrous” and went on to cast doubt on the whole notion of free schools being able survive independently, suggesting that they needed to turn to local councils or academy trusts for help.

“There is a future for the schools, but I think it needs to be perhaps with a large group,” Ms Fogel said. “I think, on their own, that is not ideal. 

“There are a huge amount of single free schools around that can and sometimes do buy into local authorities and become part of families of schools. But sometimes they don’t and it can be very, very isolating.”

Ms Fogel is executive director of the Constable Educational Trust, which originally sponsored and set up the two primaries. But she revealed that the charity – which runs an independent school in London for dyslexic pupils – had pulled out of the free schools late last year, at least two months before the Ofsted inspections took place.

“Within six months [of the free schools opening] it became it clear it wasn’t working,” she told TES, saying that the trust had decided to concentrate on special education and “go back to what we do well”.

A lack of support in setting up the free schools had been a major problem, Ms Fogel said.

“There was no part of this that anyone said ‘let’s give you a hand’, you know, ‘we’ll see what we can do’ – there was nobody.”

Asked if she meant that the government was not helping enough, she said: “I don’t think generally there is enough joined-up thinking with free schools and that’s the problem, support is all part of that.”

Ms Fogel suggested the implementation of the Conservative flagship education policy had been rushed. “Free schools should have been part of a long-term, ten-year plan of revolutionising education," she said. "That would have made sense.”

But she accepted that the ministers had been constrained by the electoral cycle.

Her comments and Ofsted’s verdict that both the primaries “require improvement” are only the latest problems to hit the free-schools programme.

On Thursday, it emerged that the Greenwich Free School in London, which has close links to education secretary Michael Gove, has also been deemed not good enough by Ofsted.

The difficulties at the CET primaries have largely gone under the radar, with the Westminster school’s February report barely noticed by the national media and the Tower Hamlets school’s inspection verdict at the end of last month unreported on until today.

Ms Fogel said the two schools were now being run by an entirely separate body called CET Primary Schools.

But she is still part of a forum that advises future and current free-school sponsors. “I can tell you horrendous stories from last year about some of the different free school operators that I had met at various different seminars – how they were operating and having to fund things because funding hadn’t come through from the department.

“It was quite eye-opening. For those setting up from scratch with just a hope and a vision it is very, very difficult.

“We are not in the days of the academy trusts when £40m was designated to school buildings and the set-up of brand new schools,” she added.

“Free schools are opened on very tight budgets and there is not much room for manoeuvre for anything different. I know that the CET primary schools struggled and that is why their Ofsteds were poor.”

Ms Fogel said that finding buildings (both schools are currently in temporary accommodation) and suitable staff had been particularly problematic.

“Free schools are new, teachers like stability,” she said. “You can advertise until you are blue in the face, but it takes a very brave teacher to give up a long standing career to go to a brand new school and new venture.”

Asked what the government should do, she said: “It needs long term planning and less onerous restrictions on free schools. People seem to think that free schools can do exactly what they want and are not answerable to anyone. That is absolute nonsense.

“It is one thing being an independent school where you are charging independent fees and you are totally in control of what funding you spend per child. When the government is your paymaster it is a very different scenario. The accountability is such that you have no real flexibility.”

Richard Simmons, a former chairman of Constable Education Trust, is chairman of CET Primary Schools, but neither he nor anyone else from the organisation was available for comment.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "The vast majority of new free schools are performing well – and that is backed up by those who have been inspected by Ofsted.

"Recently, three have been rated outstanding and a further six achieved a good rating in their first inspection report – all of these schools opened in the last 18 months. These free schools are excellent examples of how the free-school programme is offering pupils and parents a high standard of education.

"The free-schools policy is just one part of our education reform package that is creating more good schools, and more good school places."

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