Free schools should share the sites of existing state schools that fail to fill their places, in an effort to make better use of public facilities, according to one of the most prominent free school proponents.
Rachel Wolf, director of the New Schools Network, a charity that helps groups to establish free schools, has called on the government to consider the controversial move, which would help more of the parent and teacher-led institutions to open.
In New York City, charter schools, upon which free schools are partly based, have been sharing sites with local public schools for many years. Writing in this week's TES, Ms Wolf, a former adviser to education secretary Michael Gove, says this could help to meet demand for suitable sites.
"We should be using the existing space at our disposal," Ms Wolf writes. "There are schools across the country that are half empty because parents don't want to send their children to them. In New York City, charter schools share space with undersubscribed schools so that square footage, as well as money, follows the pupil. We should do the same here."
Ms Wolf has repeatedly voiced her concern that the free schools movement could be hindered by a chronic lack of suitable sites and an inability within the Department for Education to meet demand for new schools. While the government is making efforts to provide more sites, radical change is needed if thousands of free schools are to open in England, Ms Wolf argues.
Scores of charter schools share sites with their non-charter cousins in New York City, with recent studies suggesting that where the two types of school occupy the same space, results improve across both. A report released last year by the Success Charter Network, one of the most popular charter school chains in the city, showed that test scores rose at a faster rate in state schools that shared space with a charter school.
Despite the statistics, however, parents of pupils attending the schools forced to share their facilities often oppose the move, viewing it as a sign of an impending closure. Any attempt to import the policy to England is likely to be met with similar opposition from heads' leaders.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said a free school setting up in an undersubscribed school would only "exacerbate" problems of falling rolls. "It would be incredibly problematic having two schools, with two different aims and two different sets of values," he said. "But what is really being suggested is a reorganisation of schools that would see undersubscribed schools gradually shut down and their buildings and facilities appropriated by the free school."
A spokesman for the Compass Schools Trust, which is attempting to set up a free school in Southwark, South London, said that finding a site had proved "the single most challenging issue" and had already set the project back by a year.
"Excellence in schools is about brilliant teaching, not bricks and mortar, but every school needs a place that parents, pupils and teachers can call home," the spokesman said. "The challenge is particularly acute in London, and so finding more creative ways to address this is essential.
"In some cases, this might mean 'building up' on a site, creating more storeys for a school to operate in; in others it might be appropriate to share a site with other education providers, such as an FE college or a university technical college."
See Comment, pages 46-47
24 free schools opened in 2011.
65 free schools were approved to open in 2012.
102 free schools have been approved to open in 2013.
60% of free schools approved to open in 2013 are led by teachers.
80 charter schools in New York City shared sites with 75 district schools, as of 2011.