When too much is not enough
In the past two years, the New Schools Network (NSN) has worked with hundreds of groups across the country and seen more than 200 successfully apply to open a new school. Once full, those schools will serve about 100,000 pupils. By 2015, we expect at least 200,000 new places to be available through the free school programme. To put this growth into perspective, look at the original academy programme. Just 17 academies opened in three years, despite the fact that many were existing schools that reopened with the same staff and pupils.
Huge numbers of people across England want to provide a better education for local children. Most astonishing has been the enthusiasm shown by existing schools and teachers, who are becoming the driving force behind free schools. Some 55 per cent of those opening next year are teacher-led or school-led. Thousands of teachers already recognise the opportunity that free schools give them to re-imagine what a school can be: unencumbered by unnecessary bureaucracy.
That enthusiasm grows each year. NSN's development programme - which helps groups with the potential and the desire to set up outstanding schools in deprived areas - is supporting more than 30 groups that want to provide a better education to local families. Proposals include the East London Academy of Music, a college designed to help young people break into the music industry, or Liberty Oak in the ex-mining town of Cotgrave in Nottinghamshire, where a new secondary will give local families an outstanding education facility on their doorstep.
The risk now is that the rapid growth of the free school programme will be stymied, not because there aren't huge numbers of good projects, but because it is difficult for the government to find the hundreds of sites needed. In areas where there is a shortage of school places, including most of London, finding suitable properties is a nightmare. Because of these issues some schools didn't open this September, particularly in London, and those that did were often hit by delays. If a school can't promise that it will open, retaining staff and parents is very difficult. This year, many parents understandably switched schools in April or May because they still didn't know if the building would be secured.
So why are free schools facing this problem? There are three reasons. First, they aren't given enough time to find buildings. Second, central government is struggling with the increasing scale of the programme. Third, there aren't the incentives to find the best value properties.
Free schools aren't allowed to seek and negotiate on their own sites until they are approved. This means that there is less than a year for property to be found, negotiated, bought and refurbished before the funding agreement between the school and the government is signed. The only way you can deal with the lack of time is by throwing people, and money, at the problem. That is fine when you have 24 schools (as was the case in the first year of the free school programme). But it becomes incredibly difficult when you have hundreds. This is why the combination of low time and high volume causes so many problems, and why the current system needs to change.
Schools aren't allowed to negotiate for their own sites before they are approved because the Treasury, understandably, doesn't want more to be promised for buildings than it is willing to pay. You could deal with this problem by having a clear, regionally weighted formula, as with Swedish free schools and some US charter schools, so that groups know in advance how much they can spend. At present, groups instead do nothing. After approval, the Treasury rushes around trying to find sites within 12 months. Landlords know there is a time constraint and put their prices up accordingly.
Another problem is that those who have the biggest incentive to find a good value site - free schools themselves - gain nothing by doing a good job. A private school can spend the money it saves on buildings on employing teachers. That is true for most educational organisations (including universities) but it isn't true for free schools - any savings aren't seen by the school. Moving to a capital formula where savings could be used on the front line would almost certainly reduce spending on buildings for this reason.
Finally, we should be using the existing space at our disposal. There are schools across the country that are half empty because parents don't want to send their children to them. In New York City, charter schools share space with undersubscribed schools so that square footage, as well as money, follows the pupil. We should do the same here.
To be fair, the government has made some important changes recently: it is moving more rapidly to find sites in areas where there is a shortage of school places, increasing the amount of time to find buildings and bringing in partners to support site finding, such as the Mayor of London. But if it wants to see thousands of new schools, more radical changes are needed.
Rachel Wolf is director of the New Schools Network.