What are free schools the answer to?

Cameron and Gove team up to open a Birmingham free school in September 2013. Paul Rogers/The Times/PA Archive

The government’s free school policy, which allows local communities to set up new schools that are funded by the state, has come under attack in recent days by MPs and sparked a row within the coalition.

In a new report on free schools, parliament’s public accounts committee said such schools are expensive, and are not generally appearing in the areas of greatest demand for school places.

More than half of the new free schools in England did not present the required financial returns to the Education Funding Agency for the year 2011-12, and uncovering problems in these schools has so far relied to a great extent on whistle-blowers. Several have already been spectacular failures, despite the first free schools only appearing from 2011. The committee concluded that the: “oversight arrangements for free schools are not yet working effectively to ensure that public money is used properly”.

Coupled with the fact that there is no evidence that their results are better than in existing schools, that they form part of an intentional unravelling of the national school system, and that many are neither full nor taking anything like their share of disadvantaged students, this is a dangerous situation with all of the risk being run for no apparent gain.

In the days following the report, a rift has opened up within the coalition, with senior Liberal Democrats saying the free school programme is “completely out of control”.

Free schools are a form of academy school, independent of local authority control but funded entirely by the taxpayers, set up in response to local parental demand for extra school places or better schools. Since 2010, 174 have opened and another 116 will be open by September 2014. Some are set up by parent-led consortia, and some by the kind of organisations that already run chains of academies.

Of course there are or will be successful, scrupulously run, over-subscribed schools taking at least their fair share of disadvantaged students in areas of great demand. However, cherry-picking such an example would not make the policy a success. Similar examples could also be picked from older school types. The committee’s report confirms what our own research had already indicated – there are some widespread problems with the whole concept of free schools.

Meeting demand for new places?

There are areas of England where demand for school places is high because after years of lower pupil numbers coming through the system, a considerably larger cohort is now of school age. Economic changes, immigration and births are among the factors that mean the increase is not evenly spread or national in nature.

Free schools are meant to be only one of the ways to address this demand. The coalition government has gone even further and now local authorities are discouraged from setting up maintained schools, otherwise known as traditional state schools. If a new school is needed, they must seek applications for free schools or academies. This makes them the main or possibly the only practical way to meet current and future demand.

Yet the applications, because they are local, are not strategic at all. They have not generally occurred in areas of greatest demand first. Most of the budget for new schools has been spent, and yet only 19% of secondary places in free schools have so far opened in areas “that had forecast a high or severe need for extra places”, according to the report.

And “half of districts with a high or severe forecast need for extra school places” have no application for primary school places. At the same time, several new free schools have very small numbers of students (one reportedly had only eight), often at considerable cost per place.

The local authorities have no say in this, and the department for education has no sanction for those new schools, set up apparently because of high demand, that end up with many unfilled places. The reason for allowing some of these new schools is not clear, but it seems that it is parental demand for a type of education more than a need for local school places that drives the department of education’s decisions.

Offering value for money?

The speed with which the programme has been set up means that many free schools opened without their new premises being ready. This has led to costly conversions being made to temporary premises, to be used for only a few years.

There is apparently no limit set for the cost of new premises, which have used the bulk of expenditure so far – £0.7 billion out of £1.1 billion spent by September 2014, according to the report. The costs are increasing, partly because secondary schools are more expensive to build than the earlier primary schools but also because so many recent free schools are in the expensive south east of England.

The existing funding may run out before its time. Even so, several of the schools in converted office accommodation and similar spaces have no access to outside areas for sport or even play, and of course very limited facilities for children with disabilities or other special educational needs.

Serving disadvantaged communities?

As with the academies programme, free schools were initially meant to address issues of equity and inclusion, and create quality provision in poorer areas where it may not already exist.

And as with academies, this aspect appears to be have been largely abandoned in favour of concern about independence from local authority and the “freedom” this brings. And the same myth is being espoused by policymakers that these kinds of schools are better in terms of attainment for equivalent children.

Free school admissions policies and practices, which local authorities do not have to be involved with, can be less clear and public than other schools bound by different laws.

Several free schools, including spectacular early failures, have been faith-based. Although these are expected to be inclusive, the fact that there is a specific religious basis will be attractive to a few but repellent to many others. This leads to the segregation of children by ethnicity, social origin and first language. And the lack of oversight created by “freedom” means that, as with academies, groups with a non-educational agenda could gain control of free schools for their own purposes.

Free schools are free to ignore the national curriculum, meaning there is no national curriculum. They can set their own term times and term lengths, making child-care difficult for families with children in more than one school.

At present, whatever the merits of individual schools under the system, the free schools programme as a whole is in danger of helping to unravel a national school system developed in successive pieces of legislation over the past 70 years.