More than half of free schools are in least deprived areas

27th May 2011 at 01:00
Labour says Commons research shows policy is based on 'ideology, not need'

More than half of the first wave of free schools to open their gates in September are in the country's least deprived areas.

Figures compiled by the House of Commons Library show that 12 out of 21 free schools examined by researchers are in parts of England with the lowest levels of disadvantage.

The statistics were revealed by shadow education secretary Andy Burnham on Monday this week during education questions.

At the time Mr Burnham said it was clear that the Coalition's free schools policy was based on "ideology and not need".

Commenting afterwards, the Labour MP said: "At a time when school budgets are falling, every penny should be targeted where it is most needed.

"However, instead of focusing on raising standards in the most deprived areas, as Labour did in government, (education secretary) Michael Gove is diverting funding to academies and free schools in areas that already have high standards. He should be focusing on raising aspiration and achievement in every school, for every child."

The numbers place question marks over Mr Gove's repeated assertions that his flagship policy will improve education for the country's poorest pupils.

On announcing the policy in June last year, Mr Gove said free schools would open access to the type of education "only the rich could afford".

And in this year's education white paper, The Importance of Teaching, the Government said that, thanks to the pupil premium - additional cash for the poorest students - it would be "more attractive to open new free schools in the most deprived parts of the country".

Mary Bousted, general secretary of teaching union the ATL, said she "was not surprised at all" by the fact that more than half of free schools were in the least deprived areas.

"The Government mantra has always been that these schools will help the most deprived and the neediest children," Dr Bousted said.

"But in reality many are private schools paid for by the state, where the sharp-elbowed middle classes will be able to buy expensive uniforms and have smaller class sizes at the expense of those schools that are serving the poorest children."

Responding to criticisms of his policy in the Commons on Monday, Mr Gove said the evidence already showed that the Coalition's free schools were bringing the best education to the poorest children.

"All of the free school applications we have received are either in areas of deprivation, educational underachievement or areas where pupil numbers are rising fast and there's a desperate need for places," the education secretary said.

"And whether it's Bradford or the East End, Slough or Tower Hamlets, in every single one of those areas poorer children are benefiting as a result of our radicalism."

A Department for Education spokesman said: "These are early days and this is just the initial wave. We've got huge interest coming through for scores of projects in deprived areas in future, as well many proposals in areas facing an acute shortage of place.

"Demand for free schools is being driven by parents and teachers who want a new and different type of education - not government diktat over where these projects should be set up."

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