Free schools: 'There will be more failures', warns key supporter
There is “no question” more free schools will fail, one of the policy's key supporters has said, following a series of high-profile controversies surrounding the state-funded independent schools.
Natalie Evans, director of the New Schools Network, a charity that helps groups to establish free schools, said that there were “still a lot of challenges” facing the programme and more would go wrong.
“There will be more failures, there’s no question. I wish I could say I think there won’t be, but I’m sure there will be,” she said.
But she said that the recent problems to hit the free-school movement were due to “legacy issues from the early days” of the policy and a much more thorough selection process had now been put in place.
The recent troubles include the Discovery New School in Crawley, West Sussex. The school was part of the first wave of 24 free schools to open back in 2011, but ministers ordered it to shut down in December amid concerns over standards of education.
Similarly, the future of the Al-Madinah School in Derby, the first Muslim free school in the country, is in doubt after two Ofsted inspections found the school to be “in chaos”.
And the King Science Academy in Bradford is currently the subject of a police investigation following allegations of fraud.
“Discovery was in the first 24 [when] there wasn’t much of a process,” Ms Evans said. “What the groups had to do to start to move through [the application process] was absolutely nothing like it is now.”
On Monday, Michael Gove insisted he had taken advice from civil servants before approving the creation of the three free schools now under scrutiny.
Speaking in the Commons, the education secretary defended the right for a minister to make their own decisions, but made it clear that in all three free-school applications he followed guidance from his officials.
“The advice from officials was to open the Discovery school. It was also the case it was the advice of officials to back Kings Science Academy, and to back Al-Madinah school,” Mr Gove said.
“In all three examples we took the advice of officials – but let me make it clear: it is entirely appropriate for ministers to overrule officials at any given point.
“Officials advise and ministers decide. But in these three cases we took the advice of officials and appropriate safeguards were in place.”
Ms Evans acknowledged that the failures had been hard on the parents, teachers and children involved, but said that the government had dealt with the situation appropriately.
“I think with any new programme … while we might wish everything to be perfect, it isn’t going to be, but it’s about acting quickly and making sure that lessons are learned,” she said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said that they were continuously looking to improve the process.
“We are constantly looking to refine and improve the free-school application process, learning from our experience of previous application rounds,” the spokesperson said.
Reporting by Alix Robertson