Free school bidders face 'personal attacks'

1st March 2013 at 00:00
But Gove's letter opposing release of names is branded 'hysterical'

The number of teachers prepared to set up free schools is likely to fall dramatically amid fears that they will suffer intimidation and abuse from opponents of the policy, the Westminster government suggested last week.

Education secretary Michael Gove said there was already evidence that people wanting to establish schools had suffered "personal attacks" and even death threats. In other cases, teachers involved in bids to open one of the government's flagship schools had lost their jobs, Mr Gove said.

His comments were made in a letter to the Information Commissioner, written to coincide with the publication of details about applications to set up free schools. The Department for Education (DfE) was ordered by the commissioner to disclose the names of all bidders, even if their applications had been unsuccessful.

Mr Gove has opposed the publication of these details, fearing that it will deter more groups from coming forward. "We are aware of personal attacks on individuals who simply want to improve educational standards and choice locally," he wrote to the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham. "Organisations opposed to free schools have run hostile publicity campaigns. In some cases, these have become highly personal, vilifying individuals involved in opening a free school.

"We have been told of instances where teachers have lost their jobs simply by virtue of their association with a free school application. One proposer has even told us that they have been the subject of a death threat. It is because we wanted to protect public-spirited volunteers from intimidation that we fought against the ruling."

As previously reported in TES, more than 60 per cent of free school applications last summer came from teacher-led groups.

The publication of applicants' names follows a lengthy battle led by the British Humanist Association (BHA) to force the DfE to release the details.

The free school policy has been vehemently opposed, particularly by teaching unions, which have claimed the programme is taking money and pupils away from existing schools.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, described Mr Gove's response to the Information Commissioner as "hysterical". "To me it's a response that reeks of desperation, resentment and hysteria," she said. "He is making wild claims without any substantiation.

"As an organisation, we have not had any contact in regards to these claims. We oppose the policy and that is a legitimate and democratic thing to do.

"He is being forced to do something he should have done a long time ago, because this is taxpayers' money that is being handed out and it is absolutely in the public interest."

The data released show there were more than 500 separate bids from free school applicants over two years, around one in four of which came from religious groups. However, the BHA said that the actual number of bids from religious groups is likely to have been a third to 50 per cent higher, because the information shows only schools with a "formally designated religious character and not those with a 'faith ethos'."

The decision to release applicants' names was not welcomed by the New Schools Network, a charity that helps people to compile and submit bids.

"This is disappointing news," the director, Natalie Evans, said. "If just one group is deterred from setting up a great new school because of this, it is one too many."

GOING PUBLIC

One hundred and eighty private schools have made applications to convert to free school status since the initiative was launched in 2010, information released this week shows.

Many of these applications came from small, specialist religious schools, run by groups such as the Exclusive Brethren, a Christian sect.

In the first wave, a third of applicants were from the independent sector but this dropped significantly in subsequent rounds.

High-profile independents which have been given the go-ahead to receive state funding include Liverpool College, which will stop charging fees from September.

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