Cash conundrum at the heart of free schools
A little more than a year into his tenure as education secretary and Michael Gove, perhaps for the first time, has been enjoying steering his school reform programme through calmer seas.
The choppy waters he faced in his first few months at the helm of the Department for Education have subsided and been replaced by a more settled period, with take-up of the offer of academy status gathering pace.
But when it comes to Mr Gove's flagship free-schools policy, questions are being asked by both supporters and detractors about which direction it is going to take.
As reported in The TES last month, more than half of the first tranche of free schools due to open their doors in September are located in the country's least deprived areas.
The figures stand in stark contrast to the education secretary's words when he announced his free-schools policy to the Commons in June last year.
Back then, Mr Gove said his free schools would offer children from the poorest backgrounds the type of education usually reserved for the richest.
Two weeks ago, he told MPs that, thanks to the Coalition, the most deprived will profit the most from free schools.
"All of the applications we have received are either in areas of deprivation, educational underachievement or areas where pupil numbers are rising fast and there's a desperate need for places," the education secretary said.
"And whether it's Bradford or the East End, Slough or Tower Hamlets, in every single one of those areas poorer children are benefiting as a result of our radicalism."
But critics believe it is those in areas of "desperate need of places" rather than the most deprived who are clamouring for - and benefiting from - free schools.
Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham says the Government is not spending money where it is most needed when it comes to free schools.
"Instead of raising standards in the most deprived areas, as Labour did in government, Michael Gove is diverting funding to academies and free schools in areas that already have high standards," Mr Burnham says. "He should be focusing on raising aspiration and achievement in every school, for every child."
And a glance down the list of free schools that have signed a funding agreement with the DfE fails to add weight to Mr Gove's argument. Most prominent among them is the West London Free School led by author and journalist Toby Young, due to open in September.
Far from being the voice of the working class, Mr Young's school will focus on the teaching of classics. He would perhaps not have been Mr Gove's first choice as the policy's unofficial poster boy.
Yet Mr Young has put forward a convincing enough case that, over the coming years - and particularly in the wake of the Government's decision to scrap the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme - there will be enough pressure on places to warrant a new secondary school in the area.
But it is here where Mr Gove must decide what his policy hopes to achieve. Are free schools to take up the slack in the system, or to give the best education to all children? In short, should free schools provide additional places or improve the lot of the poorest?
The education secretary has made it clear that where there is local need for places, in the first instance the local authority must open an academy or free school to meet the demand.
The decision has led to town halls asking parent and teacher groups to launch a bid for a free school with local authority support in a bid to ease pressure on places (see box, below).
According to the New Schools Network (NSN), a charity commissioned by Mr Gove to help guide free-school applicants through the initial process, most of the proposals already in the system are from areas where there is a lack of places. But with the latest applicants, that is beginning to change.
NSN director Rachel Wolf tells The TES: "What we are seeing from the new applications coming through is that it is much heavier on the deprivation side, although, of course, many of those are also lack-of-place areas - particularly London boroughs."
Of more pressing concern for NSN, Ms Wolf says, is how much capital funding will come from the Government to pay for the next round of free schools and where it will want that money to be spent.
"One of the things we don't know is how the Government is going to allocate capital," she says. "Will they prioritise lack of places?
"Personally, I hope they go towards deprivation, but then they also have huge pressure on places. Even better would be to provide enough to do both," she adds.
On announcing the project, Mr Gove plundered the Harnessing Technology Grant to come up with #163;50 million of capital to kick-start the policy. And, as ever, those at the front of the queue are the most likely to do best for funding.
Suffolk will see two free schools open by 2012, with one, Stour Valley Community School, hoping to open this year. Tony Callaghan is involved with both in his role with the Suffolk Free School Consortium. He says both schools have been promised cash.
"The DfE has made it clear that once we're up and running and successful, money will be made available to provide whatever additional buildings or facilities we need," Mr Callaghan says.
But with hundreds of schools still waiting to be rebuilt or refurbished after the BSF programme was scrapped, capital funding is in very short supply. Add this to the 60 per cent cuts to his overall capital budget, and Mr Gove's dilemma over whether the provision of school places or efforts to lessen the impact of deprivation should take precedence becomes even more acute. The problem is rumoured to have led the DfE to consider utilising private finance to fund the building of schools, which brings its own complications, such as long-term repayments.
The issue of capital is not lost on many free-school hopefuls who have been sending their proposals to the Department over the past two weeks. Karen Glassborow is leading a free-school bid in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. The area, she acknowledges, is not high in the deprivation stakes, but it is in need of more school places, with some schools receiving as many as 300 applications for 90 places.
"One of the criteria (in the new application process) is deprivation," Ms Glassborow says. "Our worry is if there are 100 applications and 60 tick the deprivation box, will the Department even bother looking at the other 40? We realise that if there is need and it is in a deprived area then they should get the money, but there are no more spaces in schools in this area."
It is a conundrum that Mr Gove must be wary of. To make good on his pre-election promises, and to practise the "compassionate conservatism" he so often preaches, he must focus on the most disadvantaged.
But nor can he neglect his core vote, particularly in the South East and South West, where the squeeze on school places is tightest.
So while the education secretary can take his hand from the wheel and enjoy the educational scenery, he may notice a storm brewing on the horizon.
Councils forced to jump on board
The Government's announcement that any new school must either be a free school or an academy has led to many local authorities joining the Gove bandwagon.
Hertfordshire County Council has even set up a free-school delivery body that is independent of the local authority, but with links to the council, to help to create places to meet its expanding student numbers.
The council hopes to seek out parents, teachers or academy sponsors who are willing and able to set up a free school in the area.
By making free schools the first choice, the Government has forced councils to support a policy that will create more schools outside local authority control.
And if the local authority wants to ease the pressure on the state schools within its remit, it has little choice.