A new sixth form at a school founded by Sir Paul McCartney is among 38 new free schools approved to open.
Education secretary Michael Gove gave the green light to the latest wave of free schools, bringing the overall number of such schools either open or soon to be open to 331, creating 175,000 new places.
Among the new tranche of schools is a sixth form college attached to the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, which was established by the former Beatle, Sir Paul, and the Powerlist Post-16 Leadership College, in south London, which was set up by the Aspirations Academy Trust and the Powerlist Foundation – the group behind the Powerlist magazine, which profiles Britain’s most influential black people.
There are currently 174 free schools open, attended by around 24,000 pupils, with a further 157 opening from this September and beyond.
According to officials, the government has stepped up the number of free schools it approves each year in a bid to meet demand. Free school bidders can now apply three times a year, rather than just once.
The latest round of approvals is the second announcement this year, and included among them are three further free schools set up by Perry Beeches School in Birmingham. A new Perry Beeches Primary School will open along with Perry Beeches V and Perry Beeches VI, creating a new empire for the Midlands school.
Upon announcing the new schools, Mr Gove said they were giving students the kind of education “previously reserved for the rich and the lucky”.
“Thanks to our free school programme, many more parents now have a new school in their neighbourhood offering high standards and tough discipline. Free schools put teachers – not bureaucrats and politicians – in the driving seat, as they are the ones who know their pupils best,” the education secretary said.
Despite this, free schools have suffered a torrid 12 months, with five being placed into special measures in the past year.
In April, the Department for Education was forced to close the Discovery New School in East Sussex – one of the first free schools to open – due to poor standards.
And later this year, the DfE will close the secondary provision at the country’s first Muslim free school Al Madinah in Derby, which was at the centre of a scandal that included sexual discrimination toward female pupils and members of staff.
But Natalie Evans, director of the New Schools Network, a charity that helps groups set up free schools, said the number of new schools approved showed they were still popular, and were more likely to be judged “outstanding” by Ofsted than other state schools.
“The popularity of free schools around the country shows no sign of abating – be that from groups wanting to set up new schools or from parents wanting to secure a place for their child,” Ms Evans said. “Just as importantly, these schools are raising standards and outperforming other state schools.”
The NUT, however, described the programme as an “untested experiment with children’s futures”.
“The free schools policy is emphatically not about empowering parents, teachers or local communities,” NUT general secretary Christine Blower said. “The opaque nature of the free school application process, the fact that decisions to approve schools are effectively taken by ministers behind closed doors in Whitehall with no accountability to the public whatsoever, means that the opposite is the case.
“The increasing number of free schools that are being set up by large academy chains and existing trusts also gives the lie to the idea that the free school programme is driven by parental demand.”
‘Inadequate’ Discovery free school forced to close - December 2013