The free schools programme could “grind to a halt” if the government does not change rules that restrict them to areas with a shortage of places, a prominent Conservative MP has said.
The warning follows reports that free schools are among the “three Fs” priorities of new education secretary Gavin Williamson, along with funding and further education.
When free schools were first introduced by Michael Gove in 2010, a key goal was to increase competition in the system, with parents encouraged to set up innovative new schools that would create surplus places and give parents more choice.
Quick read: Free school programme needs rebooting, says Gibb
However, the Department for Education has since tightened the criteria so that new free schools can only be opened in areas with poor results and a shortage of school places.
Now, this has been criticised in a Centre for Policy Studies report by Suella Braverman MP, a former Commons Education Select Committee member who helped found the Michaela free school in Wembley.
Free schools programme 'has stalled'
A press release accompanying the report says that restricting new free schools to areas with a shortage of places “means that it will soon become impossible to open further free schools given falling pupil numbers entering the system”.
In the document, Ms Braverman, MP for Fareham, says that “since 2015 the free schools programme has stalled as vested interests fought back against it. It is now at risk of grinding to a halt.”
Her report argues that all good free school applications should be approved when there is clear local demand, but says that a second-best approach would be to “always allow new free schools in areas where attainment in existing schools is below average”.
It adds: “The requirement that there must always be a quantitative need for new school places should, in either case, be abandoned.”
The report says the capital costs of the new free schools could be partially met by reducing their revenue funding, suggesting they could agree to get 90 or 95 per cent of the per-pupil income they would otherwise have got for their first 20 years.
It says “it is sometimes possible to do more with less”, and adds that a 10 per cent reduction in ongoing per-pupil funding “need not represent an insurmountable obstacle to educational success”.
Suggestions of how schools could economise include generating additional income by hiring out their facilities, and “technological innovation”.
The document also suggests letting private investors make money from the free schools programme.
The report’s call to reboot the free schools programme echoes comments from schools minister Nick Gibb in June.
He said that spending constraints had confined new free schools to areas that needed new school places, but that under a new prime minister he wanted the programme “to focus on ensuring that our free schools programme is as iconoclastic as it was when it was first introduced”.
Tes asked the DfE if it supports Ms Braverman's recommendations.
A spokesperson said: “The UK boasts a diverse education system and the free schools programme is an important part of this, delivering choice, innovation and higher standards for parents.
"Since 2010, we have opened 446 free schools, with more planned to open this September.
“The government is committed to delivering more free schools as it continues to drive ever higher standards of pupil behaviour and academic achievement in our schools.”