An advantage for richer and now, finally, for poorer
One of the fiercest arguments made by opponents of free schools is that they benefit middle-class parents with the time and know-how to create enclaves for their children.
Now the charity responsible for guiding free-school applicants through the process has launched a programme to ensure that more schools are opened in the poorest parts of the country.
The New Schools Network (NSN), predominantly funded by the Department for Education, will offer extra help to 20 free-school groups that want to open in deprived areas in September 2013. NSN director Rachel Wolf said there were consistent examples of groups that had the potential to run outstanding schools in poor areas that were struggling to get up and running.
"We felt there were people who were going into deprived areas, who have enormous potential but need extra help," Ms Wolf told TES. "Proportionally, more schools in deprived areas will open in 2012 than in 2011 and I would find it frustrating if a group who could run a phenomenal school got blocked at an early stage."
The groups selected for the new development fund will receive help in generating the evidence from their communities to show there is sufficient demand for a free school. They will also be given access to legal and business expertise.
"The biggest challenge in deprived areas is getting to the parents," said Ms Wolf. "When you reach them, they are excited about being asked what they want. The second problem is having the right skills and capacity on the steering group."
The development fund, which is being financed with #163;250,000 raised from corporate and philanthropic donors, comes after criticism that too many free schools were in more affluent areas. It also follows changes made by ministers to the criteria that aspiring free-school groups have to fulfil before qualifying for financial support to pay for project managers. This prompted fears that it would be difficult for parents' groups to open schools without the support of established academy chains.
Ms Wolf said she supported the Government's changes because, as the number of applicants increases, it was important that ministers could be confident in the groups' abilities.
However, she recognises that in disadvantaged areas more help is needed. Ms Wolf said that providing specialist help to groups serving poorer communities had been used successfully by charter-school pioneers in the US, which was something that NSN wanted to emulate.
Twenty groups have been selected in the first year of the programme, but Ms Wolf said she hopes to double that in future years. One of the 20 is the group behind the proposed Durham Free School, which is being led by John Denning, who is currently head of science at Bede Academy in Blyth, Northumberland.
"We want to serve former mining villages in the south and east of Durham," said Mr Denning. "The secondary schools are all to the north end of the city, which means that the most deprived areas get the least choice. It compounds a feeling of exclusion."
Mr Denning said that although the application process was fair, it could appear daunting and that canvassing parental support door-to-door was time-consuming. Being a member of the fund will pay for mail-shots and other research.
Francis Gilbert, a founder of the Local Schools Network, which promotes local schools, said he did not have a problem with free schools if they had genuinely open admissions.
But he added: "The problem is that the majority of schools tend to be set up by special interest groups who want to appeal to a certain pupil intake. Often it is religious groups, who have the time, energy and money to put into setting up a new school. My concern is any school that risks increasing segregation."
- In September this year 24 free schools opened, and another 63 have already been approved to open from 2012 onwards.
- Of the 63, 12 are faith schools, 11 are being set up by existing schools or academies and two are existing independent schools that want to join the state sector.
- Of the free schools approved to open from 2012 onwards, 33 are being set up local groups, including parents and teachers.
- The Department for Education has not made clear any targets for the total number of free schools it wants to open.