Word of warning for the Tories' free school dream

12th February 2010 at 00:00
GSA president Gillian Low warns the system is divisive and could fail to offer genuine choice

Original paper headline: Think independent heads back the Tories' free school dream? Think again

Tory plans to create hundreds of state-funded independent "free schools" could increase educational divisions and fail to provide genuine choice for parents, the head of the body representing the country's top independent girls' schools has said.

Gillian Low, president of the Girls' Schools Association (GSA), has claimed the plans are "not a panacea" to the problems in the education system, and may lead to existing schools being sapped of resources.

Her remarks come as it emerged that the schools secretary in a Conservative government would get new powers to overrule local decisions on building new schools, making it easier for businesses, parents' groups or even teachers to set them up.

The New Schools Network, a charity with close Tory links established to lay the foundations for the Swedish-style schools, says it has already fielded 350 requests from interested groups, largely made up of dissatisfied parents.

GSA members were likely to be interested in "exploring" how they could help with the project, Mrs Low said, but remained sceptical about how it would work in practice.

Mrs Low, who is head of the pound;12,500 a year Lady Eleanor Holles School in Hampton, near Twickenham, told The TES: "We are committed to diversity and choice and it's great to set up new, good schools, but what about the existing ones in the same area? We can't take the focus off them.

"The other schools must be able to continue to improve and not fall to the bottom of the ladder.

"If a lot of funding is going into these schools, you can't rob Peter to pay Paul. In the current climate, it would be hard to see how they would fund it otherwise.

"It might increase educational divisions. You really want every school to be a good school."

The former comprehensive school English teacher added that there was a danger the schools would also not provide a genuine choice for parents, just a theoretical one.

Her comments come just months after David Hanson, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, expressed enthusiasm for joining the project if the Conservatives win this year's general election.

Mr Hanson said he hoped members could bring their expertise to the establishment of a new breed of independent school, and spoke of the need for "synergies" between the public and private sectors.

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