The past, present and future of the free-school movement

27th November 2015 at 00:00
The PM’s a fan, parents are keen, but what will a doubling of numbers mean for the education sector?

The Department for Education has got tough on hopefuls wanting to open new free schools, TES revealed last week. Applicants must now face Dragons’ Den-style grillings in front of venture capitalists.

But that does not mean the flow of new free schools will dry up. Ministers are adamant they will meet their target to open “at least” 500 more by 2020. The initiative, so far largely overshadowed by the huge expansion of the academies programme, is finally about to achieve critical mass. Here’s what you need to know about the Conservatives’ favourite education policy.

What exactly are free schools?

In many ways they are like academies. In fact, they technically are academies: state-funded independent schools that exist outside local authority control, receiving funding directly from central government. They have autonomy over the curriculum, who they employ to teach and how much they pay their staff.

What sets free schools apart from other academies is that they are usually new schools (although a few are former private schools). The idea is that they can be opened in response to local need and can be set up by parents, teachers or even other schools.

Where did the idea come from?

The policy was inspired by the Swedish free-school movement and by charter schools in the US. It served the Tories well in opposition, capturing the imagination of a sizeable section of the commentariat, who were enthused by the apparently novel approach to improving state-funded education.

The idea also gained strong backing at the top of the Conservative Party. Empowering ordinary members of the public to open their own schools was a key plank of prime minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” initiative.

How has it worked out in practice?

Not perfectly. Hitches have included some damning Ofsted reports, a fraud case, four closures and the original Swedish model losing more than a little of its lustre.

How have free schools performed?

Most have yet to produce GCSE results. Of those that have, the proportion of students achieving five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths, was 50.5 per cent. This compares with 55.1 per cent in maintained schools and 63.3 per cent at converter academies.

How many are open?

Currently 306 free schools are open and another 116 have been approved. During the general election campaign, Mr Cameron pledged a further 500 free schools by 2020. However, problems in finding sites have led some groups to abandon their plans.

Others have resorted to occupying unlikely premises, such as a former court house, a job centre and even an RAF base. This issue is most often encountered in major cities, particularly London, where land is at a premium.

How much is the policy going to cost?

When the prime minister announced his new target, David Laws, then a Liberal Democrat schools minister, said the move would “blow a giant £4 billion hole” in the school-buildings budget. A National Audit Office report published in 2013 revealed that the free-schools budget had more than trebled, from its Treasury grant of ££450 million to ££1.5 billion.

Who is applying to open them?

The first wave of free schools was driven by applications from parents. Author and journalist Toby Young, who co-founded the West London Free School, soon became a poster boy for the movement. Since then, the application criteria have become much tougher, meaning parents tend to turn to multi-academy trusts (MATs), other schools or teachers to apply to open free schools.

Is everyone happy?

No, far from it. Opponents claim that free schools have been opened disproportionately in more affluent communities; they say that the schools are not serving the areas of greatest need and are causing damage to existing schools. But ministers are understood to believe there is now more cross-party support among local politicians.

Why is the prime minister so keen?

Free schools are designed to shift power away from the state and into the hands of local communities. The idea is perfectly in tune with Conservative values. The challenge for ministers now is to turn that theory into widespread, successful practice. The New Schools Network, a government-funded charity that helps groups apply to launch free schools, has started to push more aggressively for a greater number to open. So it might not be long before the movement reaches your area.

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