Government acknowledges its free school application process is faulty

Fiona Millar's picture
There are signs that the DFE is recognising the weaknesses in its free school applicationsĀ  process. According to this report, new details of how applications will work in practice were explained at a conference for free school founders on Saturday. Meanwhile the New Schools Network and the DFE also warn proposers on their websites that the application process is changing and that no new proposals can be accepted until the new assessment process is in place. Most significantly it looks as though the Stage 2 proposal form part of the procedure - the stage at which free school proposers can put in vague estimates of demand and get money in return to develop their plans - is being dispensed with. Instead Stage 2 is being rolled into the next stage and proposers will have to provide a more detailed business case and educational plan before they can attract any funding. This will include information about curriculum, admissions and affordability, including contingency planning in the case of places not being filled.

LKM Consulting an organisation present at the conference, which doesn't appear to have been heavily publicised, reported that the announcement caused' quite a stir' with potential founders who felt the original idea of harnessing individual parent and teacher energy would be sacrificed in favour of bids being managed by big chains like Ark, something contributors to this site have always suspected was the real government aim.However the change of heart may also signal a recognition that the initial flurry of publicity about free schools attracted groups who either don't have the capacity to set up or run a new school, or who may not have the best motives, and therefore should be discounted and certainly not given public funds at such an early stage.

This process doesn't yet include the possibility that more than one group will come forward if there is indeed a demonstrable need for a new school in a given area. As I suggested here in an earlier post the Labour government's competition procedure should be re-introduced so that potential school bidders are required to make a public and open case for why they should be chosen to run any new school, this process should include bids for maintained schools ( VA, foundation or trust) and allow local authorities to enter bids if that is what local parents want.
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Laura McInerney's picture
Mon, 14/03/2011 - 12:53

I think we have to be careful in jumping to the conclusion that the application process is 'faulty' - merely that there are issues with this sort of approach. There is another LKM blog I wrote a while ago explaining how school management companies are likely to operate. My feeling is that the Government will start to become a leaseholder of schools.

You are right, if people want to have locally accountable schools it will be important that when schools are up for 'franchise' that the local authority is equally able to compete.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 14/03/2011 - 13:01

Yes I should make clear that it is me, not LKMCo that judges this process to be faulty at present. I think if it is being reviewed , someone somewhere must think there is something wrong with it and I would agree with that assessment. As I wrote in my Guardian Education column last week, the Stage 2 proposal form as it currently stands doesn't require sufficient evidence to prove that a new school will be viable and we have already seen, from contributors to this site, examples of very flimsy evidence being produced to justify the need for new schools, including petitions signed by people who live in other parts of the country and the world!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 14/03/2011 - 13:12

Absolutely, we need a fair and open competition process so that LAs can compete with other providers if they choose.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 14/03/2011 - 14:34

Just read Laura's other blog and agree that this is probably what the government really wants - 20 or 30, or maybe even fewer, companies running all the schools in the country. They will just be like private local authorities, performing many of the same functions, although not accountable to local people in the same way ( who judges when they fail - the S o S?) . Some will be good, some bad and some mediocre, rather like the train companies.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 14/03/2011 - 15:05

If schools end up being franchised like train operators then this raises the question of what happens when a school operator finds it is no longer willing or able to run its group of schools. We could have a situation where the Government has to take back the running of the franchise (like the East Coast Main Line) at considerable cost to the taxpayer - a cost which could be avoided if schools are left under local authority control.

Laura McInerney's picture
Mon, 14/03/2011 - 21:58

Janet, the new Education Bill precisely states that in the case of failure a school's land will be passed back to DfE - not the local authority - and preference will be given to an Academy or other form of 'independent' school.

In terms of cost, it's not really an issue because if a school fails and is operated by an LA associated costs are still soaked up by the taxpayer. The issue is more one of local accountability and choice. The decision of who will operate the school will go to Central Government rather than the local authority, meaning decisions about a school's future will be taken at a level far out of reach to most ordinary people. Seems an odd way to get local communities involved in schools!

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 16/03/2011 - 13:58

In this parliamentary answer, the government explains that there are 97 civil servants working on free schools. Two per school.

Does that mean the New Schools Network can be wound up?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 16/03/2011 - 16:49

It would be interesting to know what these 97 civil servants working on free schools actually do in addition to answering letters about free schools and looking at bids (although not always bothering to request supporting evidence). It would also be interesting to know how many civil servants do work connected with (a) academies (b) local authority schools. I doubt very much whether there are two civil servants per school - if there were then there would be thousands of civil servants in the DfE.

Is the number of staff assigned to work on free schools disproportionate?

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