Free schools in name only until bidding is open to all

18th March 2016 at 00:00
The first tasks for the new national schools commissioner must be to find out which areas are most in need of places and establish a process that includes outside providers

Since the 2015 general election, the government has required all new schools to be opened as “free schools”.

The Harris Federation, which I lead, has opened nine free schools, with four in the pipeline, and has welcomed the policy since it was first mooted by the former education secretary Michael Gove almost a decade ago. It has enabled us to work with the communities that we serve to deliver a series of much-needed new and successful schools.

The latest window for free-school applications closed a few weeks ago; the Department for Education is now on the eleventh wave of such bids. But with a growing population and resultant shortfall of school places in many areas, it is vital that we take stock of how the commissioning of new school places is working on the ground. It is a concern for all: pupils, parents, councils, would-be free-school providers, the DfE and taxpayers.

One basic criteria used by the DfE to decide whether a bid to open a free school should succeed is whether the expected demand for places in the area exceeds supply. While it allows a small margin for oversupply, the DfE expects there to be a need for places in order to justify a new school opening.

Partly as a result of the new free schools that have opened over the past five years, the much talked about primary bulge is now largely a thing of the past, in London at least. But the picture at secondary level is very different, not only in London, where the Harris Federation operates, but across the country.

One in six secondary schools is now at or over capacity, with forecasts that 300,000 new school places will be needed by 2020. Surprisingly at a time of such urgent need, a real problem facing free-school providers is getting reliable information about where new places are needed. Although many local authorities collect and publish this information annually, there is no statutory requirement to do so. The result of this is that in some areas, the data is unavailable.

We have also seen some councils indicating to their regional schools commissioner (RSC) that they need new places and are open to bids from a wide range of providers, but then failing to make the information easily accessible to operators from outside the locality.

The DfE has tasked RSCs with overseeing the delivery of free schools, and it is telling that this particular problem has not been resolved. It is especially so because this government will, quite rightly, be judged on whether it is able to meet its very publicly declared election manifesto pledge of establishing 500 new free schools by 2020. Knocking heads together so that potential free-school bidders can join up with areas in need of places is an urgent job for the new national schools commissioner (NSC), Sir David Carter.

Developments relating to how schools are being commissioned are not always in line with DfE rhetoric about promoting transparency and competition. Where the site for a new school is being provided by a local authority, it must hold its own bidding process to choose who runs it. Local authorities can include in their judging criteria a preference for existing providers based in their area.

Although everybody in education presumably has the same aim, to provide the best possible schools for young people, it is not clear how allowing local authorities to restrict the supply of new schools to known providers ensures this. Nor is it clear why the DfE and RSCs allow this to happen when it runs counter to the spirit of the original free-schools movement.

Of course, it is possible that young people will receive the best education from providers already active in their area. But it is equally possible that another provider from outside might do a better job.

RSCs should make sure that opportunities to run new schools are made available to everyone, and it is surprising they have not – another job for the new NSC.

Even during the twice-yearly bidding waves, where the DfE decides which provider is most suitable to run a particular free school, the process is far from transparent. To ensure that they get the schools that they need, local authorities need to encourage providers to bid. But while some local authorities want new organisations to come into their area, others only ask existing providers.

Given the national importance of our schools, it is difficult to justify the failure to publicise bidding opportunities to all.

And even when other providers are interested, there is no requirement for local authorities to publish data on the need for places. This can limit the number and type of bidders and goes a long way towards predetermining the outcome. By the time the RSCs know of a bidding opportunity, local providers have already applied, the window has closed and it is too late to encourage competition from others.

When a process leads to the expenditure of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, and that process is neither open nor transparent, it needs to be reviewed. I welcome Sir David’s promise to ensure decision-making by RSCs and their headteacher boards becomes more transparent. This will benefit the whole system, so it is important that he gets this right.

Following a long period of central planning in education, the free-schools programme marked a laudable change of course to try to benefit from the best aspects of a competitive market. But these cannot be guaranteed at present. Free competition alongside better regulation by the DfE or RSCs is needed to ensure that only the best providers, wherever they come from, get to provide new school places. Bidding processes for new schools should be treated with the same rigour, care and transparency as any other multi-million pound public procurement exercise.

If we are to have 500 excellent new free schools by the end of this Parliament, Sir David has plenty to get his teeth into.

Dan Moynihan is chief executive of the Harris Federation

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