Free school revolution gets tangled up in red tape

24th February 2012 at 00:00
Campaigners call on ministers to relax rules on securing sites

It was billed as a school revolution, but as the latest number of free school applications is published, the government's own free schools champion has warned that the policy will fail to take off unless drastic changes are made.

Rachel Wolf, director of free schools charity the New Schools Network (NSN), has called on ministers to allow more innovative funding methods to be used if they want to see hundreds of the new schools opening every year.

More than 330 free school groups have submitted an application via the NSN to open a new school from September 2013. It is expected that the lion's share of successful bids will have been delivered by NSN.

And while Ms Wolf believes that the Department for Education will approve about 100 bids this year, she said that the number would be "far more significant" if the government changed its rules on free school groups securing sites.

Currently, every free school must secure a site through the DfE's capital arm, Partnerships for Schools (PfS), but according to Ms Wolf the quango is struggling to cope with demand.

"The government has had to move the application and approval process so that it occurs earlier in the year, to give schools more of a chance to find sites once they are approved," Ms Wolf said. "This set-up relies on PfS and applicants are banned from entering into negotiations over potential sites.

"The Treasury have got to realise that, if they want hundreds of free schools opening every year and they don't want a quango with 30,000 people running it, then they have to be more flexible with the capital," Ms Wolf added.

Toby Young, chair of governors at the West London Free School (pictured above), said he agreed with Ms Wolf's comments, adding that the government should look to for-profit companies.

"The Secretary of State should either allow for-profit education management organisations to set up, own and operate free schools or, at the very least, put a procurement framework in place that enables free school charitable trusts to outsource the management of their schools to such organisations," Mr Young said.

"I'm sure plenty of management companies would be prepared to bear some of the capital cost of setting up a free school in return for a 10-year contract," he added.

Just 24 free schools are currently open, with another 72 in the pipeline, and TES understands that a number of free schools approved last year have been forced to push back their opening date to September 2013 because they have not been able to secure a site.

However, free schools have come under heavy criticism from the teaching unions, particularly the NUT, which attacked Ms Wolf's call for more schools.

"There is no consensus among the general public that free schools or academies are the way forward for education," said Kevin Courtney, the NUT's deputy general secretary. "Indeed, we are already seeing how the first wave of 24 free schools are creating a very damaging situation for existing good schools in the community."

The DfE is, however, insistent that the government's policies are creating a good environment in which to set up a school. "We're delighted that there is so much interest from groups wanting the chance to set up a free school," a spokesman said. "Twenty-four schools opened in little more than a year and around 60 are aiming to open in September 2012. In his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor announced an additional #163;600 million to fund scores more free schools."

In the pipeline

337

applications for free schools to open in 2013 have been made via the New Schools Network.

30%

are for primary schools.

43%

are for secondary schools.

16%

are for alternative provision.

8%

are for special educational needs schools.

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