'Free schools should offer something innovative in the state sector'

Plans to open free schools in areas where there's no need for extra places should be given the cold shoulder – we can use the money elsewhere, says this education writer

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A news story about a new free school specialising in music caught my eye a few days ago.

I know free schools are not exactly flavour of the month following the news that the programme is over-budget, with many of the new schools opening in areas which do not need any new places – while existing schools are being starved of resources.

But this school – the proposed Halle Music Free School in Stoke-on-Trent – would be a free school with a difference.

The project, yet to be approved by the Department for Education, would give pupils masterclasses with members of the Halle Orchestra, access to a musician in residence and two concerts a year by the orchestra.

The students – aged between 7 and 18 – would spend a minimum of 40 per cent of their time in specialist classes and the rest on a normal academic curriculum for state schools.

Admissions would take into account aptitude and interest in music but not prior attainment.

It seemed to me that this project was exactly what the free school movement should be all about – offering, to use the words of Monty Python, "something completely different" to what is on offer in the existing state sector.

That was why when free schools were first launched six years ago my eye was then caught by two projects which offered primary pupils the chance to be taught in a bilingual school – one in Brighton offering English and Spanish and another in south London offering the chance to learn in English and German at the same time. 

Again, offering something completely different.

Unfortunately, though, the free school movement has turned into a monster which has got out of hand as a result of the government pledge (by David Cameron when he was prime minister) to create 500 new free schools and academies by 2020.

That had the effect of approving a number of projects in areas where there was no need for new school places.

'Put the money to better use'

Ministers do argue that the majority of new schools are operating in areas where there is a shortage but – in a climate where schools are faced with making draconian cuts due to rising wage bills and pensions and national insurance contributions – surely any project designed for an area where there is no need for the extra places should be given the cold shoulder. 

Then resources could be freed up to improve the school building stock and avoid cutting course options because there is not enough money to pay for the necessary teachers.

In my ideal world, we would then be left with schools which were offering something innovative in the state sector – rather than just flooding the market in some areas with too many schools.

The past few months have been littered with stories of the new breed of university technical colleges (UTCs) struggling to survive in the current education climate.  Some have even had to close because they cannot attract enough pupils.

This is not, though, a sign that the project itself is not worthwhile.

No, rather that – because they operate for 14- to 19-year-olds – they have difficulty in attracting pupils who have already spent three years in a secondary school.

In addition, schools are loathe to release pupils – unless they believe their lack of attainment may cause their league table positions to suffer. 

In effect, it has created a "sheep and goats" situation which the pioneers of the UTC movement had wanted to avoid.

It may be that a more radical reform is necessary – changing the education system so that 14 becomes the natural age for a pupil to start in a secondary school.

Former education secretary Lord Baker has in the past favoured this but believed it may not be possible with all the other upheavals education has faced in recent years. 

However, I would like to see government advisers spending more time investigating this – instead of looking at ways of introducing more selection into the system.

Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years, and before that news editor of TES. He has been writing about education for more than three decades. 

To read more columns by Richard, view his back catalogue

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