Free school freedoms are enticing teachers

20th July 2012 at 01:00
Almost 60 per cent of approved applications are from school staff

Nearly six in 10 of the free schools approved by the government to open next year are being led by teachers, making school staff the fastest growing group of successful free school applicants.

Last week, Downing Street and the Department for Education announced that 102 schools had been approved to open from September 2013 and beyond - a 50 per cent increase on the number due to open in 2012. Of these, 59 are being led by teacher groups, with the government claiming that the profession is turning to the policy in a bid to run schools as they see fit.

Announcing the latest wave of free schools, Prime Minister David Cameron said that the message from the first two years of the policy was "clear and unambiguous". "Free schools work and parents and teachers want more of them," he said.

Among the most recently approved is the Riverside Cooperative Free School, a teacher-led secondary that is planned to open with a capacity of 1,800 pupils in one of the most deprived areas of Barking and Dagenham, East London.

The project is being led by Roger Leighton, headteacher of the Sydney Russell School in Dagenham, who will act as executive head of Riverside when it opens in 2013. He said that the attraction of being able to set your own school days and term dates, and introduce new teaching innovations, was the reason for backing the project. He believes it will lead to more teachers opting to open free schools.

"I really do believe more teachers will start up their own schools. I certainly wouldn't be surprised," he said. "In the first round there was a lot of suspicion about the Toby Youngs of this world creating middle-class playthings. But in terms of a route to spread your own unique way of doing things, it's actually a very, very enticing vehicle."

Mr Leighton added that many educationalists are not happy with methods used in some of the most prominent academy chains, and he claimed that free schools offer teachers a way of applying alternative models of teaching.

Rachel Wolf, director of the New Schools Network, a charity that helps prospective free school groups to make applications, said that the number of teachers getting involved should act as a wake-up call to teaching unions. "With nearly 60 per cent of groups coming from within the schools sector itself, the profession is voting with its feet," she said. "The unions are going to have to take a long hard look in the mirror and ask themselves who they really represent."

But Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said: "We know who we represent in the NUT. We represent qualified teachers, the majority of whom are not in favour of the free schools experiment, which is using taxpayers' money to fund the preferences of the few and undermining a coordinated and accountable education system."

Ms Wolf added that if the number of free schools continues to rise at current rates, enough schools will have been established by 2015 to create 250,000 additional places when at full capacity.

Of the latest tranche of free schools, a third describe themselves as having a faith ethos. Twenty of those are formally designated as faith schools, meaning they are able to select up to 50 per cent of their pupils on the basis of their religion.

In the past week, concerns were raised by secular groups after the announcement that the Exemplar-Newark Business Academy had been approved by the DfE despite it being supported by the Everyday Champions Church, a group that was previously prevented from opening a free school due to its creationist beliefs. As TES revealed last year, a bid to open the Everyday Champions Academy was rejected after the church's pastor, Gareth Morgan, said that creationism would "not be taught exclusively in the sciences".

Grindon Hall Christian School in Sunderland is also supposed to be opening as a free school in September. It has previously declared that it teaches "creationism as a scientific theory". The school's principal, however, said that the school's policy has changed and it will not teach creationism in science.

BORN FREE

102 - Number of free schools approved to open from September 2013 and beyond.

40 are primary

28 are secondary

12 offer alternative provision

10 are all-through

5 are special schools

5 are for 16- to 19-year-olds

1 is for 14- to 19-year-olds

1 is for infants.

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