Free school founders' kids to be assured places
Parents involved in establishing free schools will be given guaranteed places for their children under a fundamental change to the school admissions code being drawn up by the Government.
The Department for Education (DfE) is considering the shift in policy to give priority to parents who set up free schools as part of wider "simplification" of the current code. Officials previously said that free schools would be compelled to abide by the code in the same way as all other state schools.
The decision has been condemned by teaching unions and fair-admissions campaign groups, which believe it will lead to middle-class parents setting up schools for their own children to avoid contact with "the great unwashed".
But the move will be strongly welcomed by hundreds of parents who are in the process of setting up one of the independent state schools, and could see many more take up the offer to create one.
A DfE spokesman said the proposals are at an early stage but that ministers believed it was "right and common sense that people who invested a lot of time in setting up a school should have priority for their children".
"There are no decisions yet - but we've been looking carefully at the mechanics of how this would work - who it would apply to, when it would start, the effect on small schools," he added.
Just one free school, led by journalist and author Toby Young, has so far been given the green light to open in September this year, with another 10 awaiting final sign-off. According to the latest figures, 323 free school proposals have been received by the DfE.
Mr Young said that without changes to the rules, there was a chance his own children would not secure a place at the West London Free School because it will use a lottery to determine places if it is oversubscribed.
"If they do change it, it will be politically contentious," he said. "But I don't think members of the public would think it unfair unless the numbers were particularly high."
Anne West, director of the education research group at the London School of Economics and an expert on school admissions, said the number of parents involved in each free school could be a key factor.
"It is hard to see why people would go through setting up a school without being allowed to send their children there," Professor West said. "But I think there could be an issue if you have a large group of parents involved; then it could become somewhat problematic."
The planned changes have been strongly criticised by teachers' leaders, who claim the move makes a "mockery" of education secretary Michael Gove's claim that free schools are for everybody.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of teaching union the ATL, said: "It completely paves the way for pushy, middle-class parents to set up a school so their children don't have to go to the same school as the great unwashed.
"It makes a mockery of the idea that free schools are for all. They are not for everybody - we know they are disproportionately in the less deprived communities, where these schools are not needed.
"They are not by any means free, as we know they are costly. And they are for parents whose priorities are simply strong discipline and blazers."
Margaret Tulloch, secretary of fair-admissions campaign group Comprehensive Future, said: "This is fraught with difficulty and potential injustice. Presumably priority will also be given to siblings of these founder parents' children if siblings are in the admission criteria of the school."
Ms Tulloch said the situation was made worse by plans in the Education Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, to abolish local authority forums used to appeal admissions decisions.