Parents and teachers will find it "virtually impossible" to open a free school on their own after the Government overhauled the application process last week, critics have warned.
The Department for Education reformed the rules by asking groups interested in opening schools to provide more information before they are considered for grants of up to #163;200,000 to develop detailed plans.
Previously, groups of parents or teachers were able to set out broad-brush plans before being eligible for the money, which could be used to hire specialist project managers to produce an outline business case.
The decision to change the application process has been criticised by author and journalist Toby Young, whose West London Free School was the first to be given the green light by the Government. He said he doubted whether his school would have been started under the new rules.
It will now be "virtually impossible" for parents to start a free school unless they were to team up with multi-academy sponsors such as Ark, E-Act or Harris, Mr Young said. Speaking to The TES, he said he understood why the DfE has made the applications process more rigorous, but added that it would stifle the Government's idea of the Big Society.
"It looks as though it will now be less about encouraging groups of parents to set up schools, and much more about encouraging multi-academy sponsors setting up schools," he said.
Mr Young's comments follow news that E-Act, led by the Government's former schools commissioner Sir Bruce Liddington, has developed plans to open up to 250 schools in the next five years, including 50 free schools. It currently runs a chain of 11 academies.
Mark Lehain, lead member of the proposed Bedford and Kempston Free School, which is being promoted by a group of teachers, said the changes made the system "undeniably harder" but added that they were necessary because budgets were getting tighter.
Under the new rules, free school groups will be asked to submit a detailed document that closely resembles an outline business case, which will be judged against other free school proposals and scored on their strengths and weaknesses.
Successful groups will then be interviewed by DfE officials, financial experts, education advisers, headteachers and organisations with a track record of setting up and running schools.
Rachel Wolf, director of the New Schools Network, a charity that helps free school groups make initial applications, admitted the process would be harder for some parents.
"If we're talking about teacher groups then I wouldn't have thought it would be impossible as they should have the expertise to do this," she said. "Some of the parents' groups will find it harder, but they will be partnered up with someone who will have the expertise. It will be a sub-section of parents, however, not the whole gamut."
A DfE spokesman said the changes to the process had been made due to "higher than expected demand".
"The signs are that demand for free schools in 2012 is going to be even higher," he said.
"As taxpayers would expect, we are trying to make everything simpler, more effective and cheaper - while getting new high-quality schools to open as quickly as possible. The changes we are making will improve school standards and give taxpayers even better value for money."