Major LA pins hopes on free schools in face of rising primary population
Hertfordshire County Council is turning to free schools to relieve the strain of a growing primary pupil population.
Town hall bosses are considering setting up a free-school delivery body that would be independent of the council, but would have ties to the local authority in a bid to meet its expanding student numbers.
Hertfordshire is one of the first large local authorities to come out in formal support of the Coalition's free-school policy, which allows parents, teachers or local community groups to open their own schools.
Last month, education secretary Michael Gove urged councils to back free schools wherever a new school was needed. Mr Gove said academies and free schools "should be the first choice" of local authorities when they decide to open a new school.
Hertfordshire's children, schools and families director John Harris said the council has always been in support of "providing greater choice and diversity" for parents in the county.
"We need to expand our primary and secondary school places and we have a variety of ways of doing that," Mr Harris said. "Part of that approach can be promoting people to come forward in certain areas of the county - free schools will be part of the mix.
"The white paper says local authorities can develop the market by encouraging other providers to come in and work with an arm's-length organisation. The body could develop a local network of schools, encouraging groups to come forward."
And he added: "It wouldn't be the county council running schools by another name. They would be free schools with their own distinct character and ethos."
But other councils are not keen to follow Hertfordshire's lead. Bedford Borough Council, which has Bedford and Kempston Free School currently awaiting approval from the Department for Education (DfE), said it would not be actively encouraging free schools in the same way.
Councillor David Sawyer said: "We are not comfortable about free schools. While we have a duty to help those groups that do want to set up their own schools, we also have a responsibility for the wider community.
"Free schools may well work for the children who attend those schools but they will take money away and leave unfilled seats in other schools. We will want to focus on the wider issue; we will not be seeking to stimulate fragmentation."
The Government has welcomed Hertfordshire's reaction to its free-school policy. A DfE spokesman said: "The policy aims to give more parents the opportunity to send their children to, and have a say in the running of, the kind of schools that previously only the privileged few could afford.
"We want local authorities, in their role as the commissioners of education in their areas, to encourage applicants to come forward and to even facilitate their applications."
APPLICATIONS - Go-ahead for 9
The Department for Education has so far given the green light to nine free-school applications led by parents, teachers or community groups. Overall there are around 40 in the pipeline.
Concerns have been raised by campaigners over the number of free schools with a religious denomination. Last month the British Humanist Association issued a statement claiming seven out of 10 free-school proposals being considered by the Government have a religious or "spiritual" connection.
The association argues that increasing the number of religious schools will "only lead to increased divisions in society".