Jumping the queue is just deserts, says Toby Young
The controversial journalist and free school pioneer Toby Young has published a new book detailing how parent groups planning to open schools can ensure their children jump the admissions queue and get guaranteed places.
Parents who found schools should include an annex in their funding agreements with the Department for Education that gives priority places to their children, according to Mr Young, who co-founded the West London Free School in Hammersmith.
Mr Young argues parents who devote their time to setting up a free school should be offered "something in return". He claims that this reasoning is accepted by education secretary Michael Gove, but his comments have prompted concerns that schools, especially smaller ones, could become havens for select groups of parents.
A new version of the school admissions code was laid before Parliament this month and is due to be approved in February 2012. All academies and free schools are bound by it, but the code says that exceptions can be made where there is a "demonstrable need". Mr Young says this can be used to get guaranteed places for free school founders.
It is believed that, so far, the right has only been granted to one free school: Canary Wharf College in Tower Hamlets, east London (see panel, left).
"I think it will be granted to other free schools as well in due course, partly as a reward for the amount of work parent-founders have put in, and also to make sure the people running them have a vested interest in their success," Mr Young told TES.
"In the case of the West London Free School, we're talking about a grand total of nine children over the course of the school's life that would be given priority. That's out of 840 children in the school at any one time and tens of thousands over the course of the school's life.
"To give priority to just nine children out of tens of thousands doesn't seem like too high a price to pay for an excellent new school."
Despite the sensitivities surrounding school admission policies, Mr Young argues in his book How To Set Up a Free School that critics of free schools would be "hard pressed" to say that the only beneficiaries are the children of founders.
However, the possibility of free schools gaining extra freedoms over admissions has raised concerns over fairness and how widespread the practice may become, especially in smaller schools.
According to Anne West, professor of education policy at the London School of Economics, variations in admissions rules via individual school funding agreements are "problematic".
"Parents, or others, will not be able to object to them - the funding agreement is agreed with the secretary of state and cannot be challenged through normal channels," she said.
"There will be no transparency unless the funding agreements are made available in full. If, for example, the children of founding members are prioritised, how many founding members will this apply to? Will it apply to all children of founding members? Over how long a period of time will it apply?
"If there are, say, 20 founding members and the school is small, it is possible that few other children would gain access. This could discriminate against certain parents, for example those who do not have the resources or know-how to set up a new school."
Today marks the end of a 12-week consultation on the proposed new school admissions code, which the Government wants to make less bureaucratic. Among the proposed changes, due to come into force from September 2013, is allowing schools to give priority in admissions to the children of staff members.
The DfE refused to confirm how many schools had been granted permission to prioritise places for the children of founders.
"We are willing to consider founders' desire for their children to have priority access to their school on a case by case basis," a spokeswoman said. "Permission for such admissions arrangements is only granted in exceptional circumstances and when the Secretary of State is convinced that the admissions arrangements are fair and inclusive."
Canary Wharf College, a free school with a Christian ethos that opened in September, has been given the right to prioritise the children of founders when allocating places.
According to the school's website, if oversubscribed, priority goes first to children in care and second to the children of the people who set up the school.
Applications for faith places are considered next. Free schools can allocate a maximum of half of their places based on faith criteria.
The final group allocated places at the school, which has maximum class sizes of 20, is children applying for community places. No one at the school was available to comment.