Picky approach to pet policy angers free schools charity

14th October 2011 at 01:00
The education secretary is attacked by the organisation he set up

It all seems a little off message. But a Government-funded charity created to help groups to set up their own free schools has this week launched an undisguised attack on the education secretary for lacking ambition when it comes to his pet policy.

Michael Gove announced on Monday that 55 free schools had been approved and will open their gates in September next year, along with a further 16 university technical colleges.

But the number of free schools signed off by Mr Gove was criticised by charity the New Schools Network (NSN), which is funded by the Department for Education to advise groups on how best to set up independent state schools.

In a statement, Rachel Wolf, director of the NSN, and a former adviser to Mr Gove when he was in opposition, said "too few" free schools had been approved, adding that she hoped to see a "significant increase" in the numbers as the policy develops.

Speaking after the announcement, NSN chief operating officer Natalie Evans said the calibre of the applicants was such that more free schools should have been given the thumbs up.

"We thought that between 80 and 100 free schools should have been approved, so to see just 55 - we feel the Government is being over-cautious," Ms Evans said.

"Where we felt groups had shown innovation, particularly those groups which had proposed both mainstream and alternative provision, the department has erred on the side of caution."

Announcing the latest cohort of free schools, Mr Gove described the people who had successfully negotiated the approval process as "true pioneers".

"They are leading a revolution in the education system," the education secretary told the House of Commons on Tuesday.

The successful free school applicants made up just a fifth of the overall applications, with 281 parent and teacher groups and other school providers having submitted proposals to open a new school in their area earlier in the year.

The NSN is not alone in its concerns over the small numbers. The decision to allow just 55 schools to open next year was heavily criticised by right-of-centre think-tank Reform, which described the accreditation process as "ludicrously complex".

Research director Dale Bassett said the Government was currently the "biggest barrier" to more free schools opening and called on Mr Gove to relax the selection process so more schools could open across the country.

"It's a minor miracle that any parent or teacher groups and not just major school providers have been able to submit an application at all," Mr Bassett said.

"The primary point of this legislation is to liberate choice, and, while it is understandable that the Government does not want to fund groups of religious extremists, their threshold of what is acceptable is way too high."

The Government needed to be careful that its stringent application process did not put off hopefuls from applying again, Mr Bassett added.

Overall, 79 new schools will open next September, with eight free schools already in the pipeline from the first cohort approved last year.

It should not come as any surprise that the policy's longest serving cheerleader, author and journalist Toby Young, whose own school, the West London Free School, opened in September, stepped in to defend the DfE.

He insisted that he was "surprised and delighted" with the number of parent groups that were approved.

But even he said there were reasons to have reservations. "My worry is that because the threshold is so high you will see less of the 'mom and pop' groups getting through and the policy will be hijacked by multi-academy sponsored schools."

DAMES AND DARLINGS

A new Steiner school was among the latest batch of free schools to be given the green light by Michael Gove this week.

The Frome Steiner Academy in Somerset will become only the second state-funded Steiner school in the country when it opens in September next year.

Also among the 55 new schools is Wapping High School in east London, which garnered support from Oscar-winning actress Dame Helen Mirren.

Conservative party darling Katharine Birbalsingh, who rose to fame following an attack on the state of the country's education system last year, has also been successful, with her application for a secondary, Michaela Community School in south London, being approved.

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