Lure of free school status is weak for independents

They don't want to lose autonomy to politicians' 'whims', poll finds

Irena Barker

Only 10 per cent of small independent schools would consider applying for free school status, and only then if they were in "desperate financial straits", a survey has found. The poll, by the Independent Schools Association, revealed that there is little appetite for becoming state funded in the independent sector, except as an emergency measure to allow a school to remain open.

Heads in the association, which generally represents smaller independent schools, expressed fears over loss of independence and schools becoming subject to "political whim". There were also concerns that existing fee-paying parents might object to the new make-up of the school, once state-funded children were allowed in.

One school commented: "Schools will only change if faced with insolvency. Most independent schools like being independent."

Another said: "There are uncertainties as to the sustainability of the initiative."

"I see no advantage," one respondent said, with another adding: "We might be affected by political whim in the future."

Only two private schools are expected to open as free schools this September, from 40 applications revealed by the government last October. Bradford Girls' Grammar has applied to open as a free school in September 2013.

Meanwhile, schools that have already become state funded have reported huge popularity. Batley Grammar in Yorkshire, which became state funded last September, receives five applications for every place and has the longest waiting list in its local authority. Pupil numbers are expected to rise from 584 this year to 700 in September.

The small Priors School in the village of Priors Marston, Warwickshire, which only had 25 pupils as a private school, said that it has nearly reached its five-year target of 60 pupils after just one year of being a free school.

Moorlands Prep in Luton also converted to free school status in September, but its headteacher Andrew Cook left his role last month. Local newspaper reports suggested that he was unhappy with Moorlands being taken over by the Barnfield Federation "family" of schools.

Although he is prevented from talking about what happened by a confidentiality agreement, he told the local press: "At the time the free school application was made by Moorlands, in October 2010, it was never anticipated that the school would be wholly taken over by the Barnfield Federation."

The poll of 112 schools also revealed that the majority of independent heads think private schools that convert to free school status should not be allowed to retain selection. The finding comes after renewed calls for the government to allow independent grammar schools to be able to remain selective even if they become state funded.

Conservative MP Graham Brady, who has campaigned for the expansion of grammar schools since 1997, said that several grammars - which previously offered state-funded places through the direct grant scheme - wanted to reopen as state schools. "Good schools should be opened up to as many people as possible," he said last week.

Neil Roskilly, chief executive of the Independent Schools Association, said: "It seems from our survey that private schools would only apply for free school status if they were in desperate financial straits. Turning into a free school means that parents are misled somewhat, as they assume that they are getting an independent school for free, but the school loses its independence and the make-up of the school changes."

Independent school heads have previously criticised the free schools revolution, saying that it would not be a panacea to problems in education and would lead to existing schools being deprived of resources.

William Richardson, general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, said that there was very little appetite for independents to become free schools. "But there are specific geographical and economic circumstances where it would be appropriate," he added.


5 - Applications now received for every place at Batley Grammar in Yorkshire.

13% - Increase in pupils year on year at Batley Grammar.

130% - Increase in pupils in one year at Priors School in Warwickshire.

10% - Percentage of small independent schools that would consider becoming free schools.

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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