Free schools and academies may be no more popular than existing local schools

Fiona Millar's picture
I am interested in seeing the evidence that free schools and academies are or will be 'wildly' more popular than maintained schools as suggested today in one of our comments. I have just come across this story from a local paper in Hammersmith and Fulham, about to get a two free schools and an academy.

It reveals that one free school had 63 applicants for 60 places, so barely over subscribed. Another had 445 applicants for 120 places ,around 3.7 applicants for each place. An academy in the area had 632 applicants for 240 places in two year groups - 2.6 applicants for each place.

I then took a look at admissions for my own local primary and secondary schools last year, all of which are thriving maintained schools (none of which has shown any interest in academy status).

School A (Boys VA school): 546 applicants for 123 places (over 4 applicants per place), School B (mixed community school): 692 applicants for 182 places (3.8 applicants per place), School C (mixed community school):  587 applicants for 210 places School  (2.8 applicants per place).  School D ( girls community school): 470 applicants for 180 places ( 2.6 applicants per place). One community primary school was oversubscribed by 3:1, another by 6:1.

In short not much difference. I daresay there are similar stories in schools all over the country. We just  never see the success and popularity of existing local schools being celebrated in this way. Maybe that is because most of them are busy educating children, rather than blowing their own trumpets.
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Andrew Nadin's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 19:10

This is exactly this issue we have been banging on about in Bedford since Mark Lehain's "overwhelming evidence of robust parental demand" in his Stg2 application (180 signatures, representing 80 kids in the target age group for an intake of 100).

At the latest public mtng, Lehain claimed to have 400 interested parents. But much like last summer's Govian proclamation of "over 1,000 applications to become free schools", I dare say the reason no evidence of the 400 has been made public is because it's wishful thinking rather than application forms.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 19:42

That raises an interesting point about the bids for free schools . What information do they have to provide to justify their business case? Does anyone know? Signatures on a petition don't mean much unless there is an adequate supply of students to fill every year group over the longer term, to ensure the school is viable. I assume the DFE is asking for more information about population growth in the area of the school and other possible demographic changes. But who provides that? Unless this work is painstakingly done it seems like that either some of these schools will close down because they can't fill their places, or their neighbouring schools suffer a similar fate?

Laura Brown's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 19:52

You can find the initial proposal that enabled the Bolingbroke Academy to move to the business case stage at this link, in appendix 1:

The evidence of demand section for this school reads:

"As noted above, 2,000 parents have signed the NSC's petition supporting the creation
of a new school in Northcote Ward. The following key statistics demonstrate the need
underpinning the campaign:

1. Wandsworth has the lowest percentage of parents being offered their first choice of
school – 48%. As a result, local Year 6 pupils disperse to 49 different secondary
schools each year. In 2009, 27.8% of Wandsworth secondary pupils went to another
authority to attend school.

2. Of the 11 borough secondary schools, seven are oversubscribed – for example, one
of the more popular schools has a catchment zone of 0.4 miles, the Nothcote
community live over 3 miles away. In September 2009, of the 346 surplus places,
50% related to Catholic schools where non-Catholics are not offered places on
religious grounds. Of the three remaining schools with surplus places, the percentage
of pupils achieving 5 GCSEs A*-C including English and maths are 43%, 36% and

I can't leave this without commenting that a) many people signed their petition without realising that they can actually get into local schools but just choose to go privately in that area at the mo; b) the low % of parents getting first choice is driven by one highly selective school which many people put as number 1 choice in the hope that their children might be one of the chosen 70 odd based on the test they all take in Wandsworth primary schools; c) the high number of schools that children disperse to is driven by such a lot of private and out of Borough grammar schools being chosen; d) we have plenty of children coming in from the less affluent Lambeth to take up the places shunned by those going outside of Wandsworth; e) the school they cite that is 3 miles from them is the very popular selective school, there are many others they could get into if they tried to; f) the low exam results they cite for 3 schools include one whose CVA was number 5 nationally; one whose results improved from 36% to 55% this year and only one which was a genuinely underperforming school in special measures.

In other words, the information they put on this form is questionable at the very least and would benefit from interpretation by people with a good knowledge of the local area rather than centralised DfE bods!

Sarah Cottle's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 20:10

Fiona - for guidance on your question see here:

Particularly the Evidence of Demand section

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 20:37

I think the evidence required looks rather flimsy. In particular cross border movement of pupils to schools in urban areas needs to be very closely analysed. Their local school may be in another borough. They may have chosen it because it is single sex or because it has a particular faith base or for any number of other reasons and there seems no requirement to provide hard evidence of demographic trends or indeed of why parents are making certain choices. Are the signatures of parents now really a guarantee of an applications two or three years down the line? As for the requirement to seek LA help. I would agree that they have the resources to provide this sort of information but I thought the beauty of the free school was that you could be free of your LA! Also interested in why the DFE is paying the New Schools Network £500,000 to help parents start free schools if it is now undertaking this work itself?

Rosemary Mann's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 20:10

This is also my concern as is the extent this results in large sums of public funds going into these schools. The group campaigning for a Montessori Primary in Lewisham have made much of the initial parental interest and registration take up however they are just at bid stage. To be honest, if I didn't feel so strongly about the issue, and I was asked to sign a petition for a free school, I would probably do so as on the face of it, it sounds a nice idea.

As I said elsewhere, people who feel passionate enough to want to set up a school should not be blamed, they are only taking up what is on offer but I feel if they really thought about the bigger picture they might have second thoughts. The bigger questions are to what extent these schools are sustainable in respect of current and future demand, the very short timescale in which they have to get up and running and taking pupils, and the rather large sums of public money per head going into these ventures. I can't believe that £15m is going into the WLFS so that it can take 120 pupils? Is that really correct? I know this may be the initial stages but at the end of the day, these groups are not proven educationalists no matter how many glamorous big hitters they claim are heading over across the Pond to run their schools.

I remain concerned about this issue as I feel that somehow, this government will not acknowledge its mistakes as it is too embarrassing to do so, and mistakes will be undoubtedly be made. I fear that the existing schools and local authorities may have to be ones that sort out the mess with consequences for the pupils.

I have been a primary school governor for almost two years and have done some basic training as well as finance training. Despite being reasonably bright and financially astute I find this is complex as is the sheer graft and complexity of running a school. I simply cannot believe that these groups of people setting up schools in such a short timescale have any real idea of the work involved regardless of what they may have achieved in their personal and professional lives. In what other field or aspect of life would such inexperienced groups of people be able to raise large capital sums? I can't think of any. In this time of austerity it is completely absurd that public funds are handed out in this way.

Michael Keenan's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 20:29

The cost of 1 free school would keep all 162 Playing for Success Centres open for another 2 years. Many of these are situated in sport venues and football clubs and even though many of the children visiting them think the teachers get paid the same amount as a professional athlete or footballer, they don't! They are run by dedicated individuals and outstanding teachers who often start early and continue working late, as well as at weekends, just to make a difference to the education of these children. The children visiting often have some kind of disaffection with school and the teachers help raise their standards in Literacy, Numeracy not to mention increasing their confidence and self esteem. Some 400,000 children have benefited since the scheme started. Some of the children are from the most deprived areas of their cities and these visits literally brighten up their lives.

The free school model just won't be able to engage with this many children - you only have to briefly look at the figures quoted in this article.

So shame on Toby Young and all the other money grabbing free school supporters. The educational dent their social experiment will cause will probably not even register on their radars. Unfortunately, most of the children who won't get the chance to visit these centres will not even know what they have missed.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 20:57

I have read many of the petition comments for the Lewisham Montessori which was no doubt presented to the DFE
and many of them are
a) from people living outside of London and even the UK,
b) are generally concerned about the headlines about lack of reception places and restricted catchment areas and just want to do something
c) are just keen on the Montessori philosophy and want to see something different.
However there is no evidence in what I have read to suggest that these parents would actually forego a hard won place at a local primary school in order to take up a place at this free school.

We are talking two things here, sustainability of demand and risk management. The questions asked by the DFE do not really get at the heart of provision forecasting. The issue of risk relates to my earlier comment about giving groups of untried and untested providers large sums of money, and putting childrens education in their hands. From a risk assessment perspective you wouldn't get this past a financial institution these days.

H & F Parent's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 21:29

Many of the applications for free school places will be duplicates anyway. In Hammersmith and Fulham, some parents have put the WLFS first or second alongside the Oratory...

Urban Head's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 21:43

Oh how I laughed when I saw the figures from Hammersmith and Fulham. Unless you know how many of these were first choices these numbers are meaningless. We get roughly the same number of 1st choices as places so we re full. We get quite a few 2nd, 3rd and so choices too. We suddenly then become oversubscribed in all our publicity and can tell parents we get 4 applications for every place!

Try an FOI to out how many were 1st choices

Sarah Cottle's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 22:05

So, Rosalyn, what evidence would you like to see that parents would take up a place at Primrose House in favour of an existing primary?

I'll ask again, as I have asked of you on another forum, would 350 signatories, 45% of whom said they would consider sending a child to Primrose House satisfy you?

Would pre-registrations that make an average primary school instantly over-subscribed be enough?

What about the daily emails and people stopping me in the street to express their dissatisfaction with the current provision? Do their preferences count?

As for sustainability of demand - take a look at the demand figures for Lewisham in the coming years which, this evening, were described by a council official at the Kilmorie expansion consultation as an impending "explosion."

The FAQ section on the Primrose House blog firmly states that the parents at the heart of this proposal will not run the school. That is for the education experts. Governors, yes. Like any other state provision.

And where do you get the idea that any untested provider will be getting money on the back of this proposal?

As for b) "just want to do something" and c) "just keen on Montessori" - are these choices not as valid as those you might make?

Rosemary Mann's picture
Tue, 15/02/2011 - 00:15

Are you a tested provider then, Sarah?

Parents like myself want to see a solid experienced concern run our schools. Its a considerable risk for parents to go down your route and to turn down a primary place in its favour. I wonder how many will actually do that.

Signatories on a petition signify an interest but pale into significance somewhat especially when so many of those who have signed don't live in London. 45% of 350 is around 160. Is that really enough? How many of those parents will actually when it comes down to it, opt for your school over an established local primary, albeit one with a few portakabins, but one with a great Ofsted and a great reputation in the local community. That would be a real leap of faith.

Being dissatisfied with the current provision does not necessarily warrant a free school, or any new school, however if Lewisham were able to I suspect it would propose one tomorrow but it would base that decision and location choice on its considerable experience of forecasting of need and sustainability of demand. Prompt action, yes, and a sound strategy but then that was the purpose of the Kilmorie meeting, to consult on proposals to extend the intake so that Council officers comment was probably in that context of wanting to garner support for that. You have I believe tried to criticise this to instil a greater interest in your free school. However if your new school is situated in ie Brockley, then the Kilmorie parents won't benefit due to the extremely localised nature of the allocation of places.
As you know, that ability to fund new schools has been taken away from councils and money (and more hope) poured into the free school experiment at the expense of state schools. There is however potential in existing premises and school sites for extensive modernisation and redesign. The advantage in doing that would both increase capacity and address the design and layout deficiences of our old, tired buildings and make them suitable for 21st century education. That is what we need to do and that is where the focus needs to be. To not make the most of existing premises is extremely wasteful. Ventures like yours will only serve to frustrate that process further.

All schools in our locality are oversubscribed. I applied to 4 different state nurseries for my daughter in order to increase her chances of getting into one. Some were some distance from my home. Some of my friends had 4 or 5 offers from different nurseries. That is also oversubscription but its not a result of direct demand, its a result of a process which I admit is less than ideal.

Its not a secret that ideologically, I do not like the free school concept, as it is a politically motivated vehicle for reducing local authority involvement in education and putting it instead into the hands of barely publicly accountable bodies. I think its appalling that they are getting away with it and handing over large sums of taxpayers money to novices who think a school can be built in a day. It simply can't.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 15/02/2011 - 09:06

Most of the comments re free schools have been about London, an area of high population and many schools. Some have argued that there are not enough places in existing schools, parents don't get their first choice, therefore a new free school is desirable. The arguments against this have been well-aired here.

However, few people have mentioned the consequences of this policy in areas of low population. What impact would a free school have in, say, in rural area if this school took pupils away from existing schools? The existing schools, already small, may find their numbers reduced to such an extent that they are no longer viable. Children still in these schools could find there is no longer local provision.

Perhaps someone could explain what plans the DfE has to cope with school closures in such circumstances.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 15/02/2011 - 10:03

Good point. The debate does seem to be a little London-centric which is why I am pleased that we have been featured in the Yorkshire Post this week. It would appear that there are some very divisive battles over this aspect of government policy elsewhere in the country.

Sarah Dobbs's picture
Tue, 15/02/2011 - 12:50

I totally agree Janet. Falling pupil numbers are being given for a proposed merger of 5 schools into a single academy here in Lincolnshire. But I have since heard rumours about a group of parents wishing to open a free school here too. It would be an act of lunacy. I would have a choice between a free school, an academy or a grammar!!
I can't bear the thought of it.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 15/02/2011 - 13:49

I think Michael's point is very relevant: "The cost of 1 free school would keep all 162 Playing for Success Centres open for another 2 years."

It's a tragedy that great schemes like this, which brought communities together and helped disadvantaged pupils, are being shut down and millions are being given to wealthy parents to segregate their children from the rest of the community.

Julia Johnson's picture
Sat, 26/02/2011 - 15:27

How lovely. By the way which was School A (Boys VA school): 546 applicants for 123 places (over 4 applicants per place)?

Linzi's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 14:36

Are Academies good. Just realised they are self governing. If you have a problem who do you go to. Mine part of a federation trust. Can find nothing on grievances. Looks like if you don't like it tough! Seem to be moving into more beuracracy. I am sure they will improve standards but at what costs!

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