Free schools signal a real revolution

17th February 2012 at 00:00
They are changing the face of education, argues Rachel Wolf

Last time I wrote for TES - in 2009 - free schools were just an idea. Critics believed they were destined to remain that way, a "damp squib", because no parent or teacher would care enough to bother helping to set up a school.

They were wrong. In the 18 months since the policy launched, 24 schools have opened and more than 70 are in the pipeline from this autumn. We are currently working with 350 new groups who wish to open schools from 2013. It turns out that people from all across the country can be bothered after all.

Not all will succeed - the application process is rightly rigorous - but we believe that hundreds of free schools will be open by 2015. The face of education will have changed substantially.

This pace has been possible because of the energy and commitment of the groups involved, all of whom have put in thousands of hours, unpaid, to improve education for their community. Their commitment persuaded the government to allocate #163;600 million more for free schools over the next few years.

A large and growing number of these schools are being founded by teachers: a third of those we work with. We have also found increasing numbers of existing schools that wish to open new schools and provide opportunities to more children.

Why do these teachers and schools want to set up new schools? Because they believe it is possible to deliver higher-quality education and don't want to see another group of children leave school without fulfilling their potential. They want to be allowed to make a difference and are increasingly looking to free schools as a route to deliver the outcomes they want.

They also believe parents should have a say. Every group we work with must show they have the range of skills and experience to run a successful school. But just as vital is the petition they must present, from parents, saying that this specific school would be the first choice for their child. That means every group must spend months talking to parents in their community.

The requirement for parental engagement is why we are so delighted that free schools are now the preferred option, by law, for new schools. Parents across the country will be asked, in many cases for the first time, "Is this the kind of school you want for your child?" This is a real revolution.

Of course, that is harder in some areas. Not because parents in less affluent areas don't care about their children, but because busy and stressful lives do not provide much time to follow the intricacies of policy development. To overcome this problem, the New Schools Network launched a development programme to provide funding and support for groups in challenging areas. Our first groups on the programme include a school for high-functioning autistic children, a secondary in a former mining community in Durham and a school aimed at excluded children in Liverpool. They have all found parents who want to take advantage of the alternatives offered.

Obviously, not everything's perfect. Now that free schools are becoming mainstream, the government has to move from a boutique process to one that can work for hundreds or thousands. For example, it is no longer acceptable for central government to manage the entire process of finding and procuring premises while at the same time forbidding free school groups from finding sites before they apply. To continue in this way is like trying to drive with the handbrake on. Similarly, if the government is serious about freedoms for our new generation of schools, they must be allowed to make decisions about how to prioritise their budgets before they open.

This problem - how to manage the growing scale of free schools - is in itself a sign of success. Across the country, people are willing to do whatever it takes to improve education. Free schools are allowing them to do that.

Rachel Wolf is director of the New Schools Network.

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