Nine out of ten free school bids fail to get approval

Fiona Millar's picture
The Independent has a story this morning revealing that of the 323 free school bids made to the Department for Education, only 40 have been accepted and only 4 have signed funding agreements to open this September. Two of these are faith primary schools,  one with an intake of 15 pupils. The rest will be obliged to re-apply under the new , tougher application process.

This information was actually put on the DFE website on Monday but, perhaps not surprisingly, unaccompanied by the usual fanfare and press releases. It is not hard to see why. In the run up the the General Election, the Conservative Party was trumpeting the 200,000 new places that it would create in free schools in this Parliament. If they carry on at this rate, that particular project will take most of the rest of Gove's lifetime.

Clearly there isn't a stampede of parents wanting to start their own school, and the Department itself is now tacitly admitting that some of those groups who did put in bids are not suitable candidates anyway. In the meantime it would be good if Mr Gove could tell us how much these schools are costing , why it needs 100 civil servants to open four schools in 18 months and when he is going to inform the remaining 20,000 plus schools in this country how their increasingly pressing need for capital investment is going to be met?


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John Connor's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 09:16

Leaving aside the ideological aspect, i.e. whether you agree with free schools or not, I find the lack of clarity about funding agreements highly disturbing. I suspect we'll be horrified when the detail emerges. But this is the man who awarded an uncontested £500k contract to a 25 year old former aide, whose mother then led the 14-19 review. Transparent? I don't think so.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 14:52

Not so long ago, ministers were boasting of these new schools teaching as many as 220,000 students. This quietly released information from the DfE does seem to suggest that the initiative has spluttered to a crawl if not actually a halt. We have had signs recently that the government are backtracking on this – making it tougher for people to apply in the first place, murmurings of budget restrictions – and it does seem likely in view of the free school update that the government, despite the hype and bombast, are unable to make this flagship policy fly.

The website informs us that a number of the 40 approved to move to business case and plan stage or beyond will actually open in September this year. It is now almost mid may. What we need to know is IF they schools don’t open what will happen to the children with places for September? Can other schools take them? What can the LA, who don’t govern free schools, do about it?

The Statesman is of the opinion that one serious and physical reason why free schools are heading for failure is to do with buildings – the lack of them and the money to pay for them. Parent and teacher steering committees don’t have the millions to build a school, they have no credit history so no one will lease them a building (the government have said they will guarantee such leases but they haven’t actually done so yet). As this site has flagged up many times, free schools look like they will be set up in buildings specially purchased for the purpose at tax payers’ vast cost. One free school has been allocated £15m for its new building. £100m set aside for the programme isn’t going to stretch very far.

John Elledge writing for the Statesman says that the government will not let profit making companies fund buildings and run schools for profit but I wonder. Gove is not ideologically against the idea and the Adam Smith Institute have advised him to do it. Only the commercial education chains have the millions stashed away to build schools now that BSF has been scrapped.

Coincidentally, today’s Guardian reports that 10 of the first 17 free schools to be given the go-ahead have been bought listed homes. The Department for Education refuses to say how much it spent, but if the experience of heads who run state schools in historic buildings is anything to go by, the purchases could be criticised because they are expensive to remodel, repair or maintain; complying with health and safety rules is a headache and they are not intrinsically fit for purpose.

My guess is that there a lot of people panicking. Parents, in case their child’s new free school doesn’t actually open and they are left without an alternative, free school steering committees, governors and staff wondering if they have a school and pupils to actually teach and the government who actually encouraged so many people down this garden path.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 19:45

Of those already bought, who is paying for these premises, and what obligation do local councils have to pay for these sites. I am aware of some groups approaching local councils in respect of council property and asking to buy these for heavily discounted rates or even at peppercorn cost. This is surely a cost for local taxpayers. As a parent and governor I am still not sure how this impacts on the capital works budgets which my daughters school, and the school where I am governor, need so badly. Where can one obtain clarity on all of this?

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 20:27

I believe Partnership for Schools has bought some sites although at what cost? Not clear. Councils may collude with selling off or renting property at below the market rate but, as Rosalyn points out, that involves an opportunity cost to local taxpayers. Nor is clear who subsequently owns land presumably lost from the local authority estate forever. At the very least the land should be sold at the appropriate price so the proceeds can be re-invested in other local schools.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 21:01

I was told a few months back that the site housing the main buildings for Westminster Adult Education Services, where 3,500 people are taught as well as being the administrative headquarters, was to be sold by Tory-controlled Westminster Council to private developers who would use half the site for private housing and the other site to build a new ARK primary free school which would be paid for by the government. The WAES are still, I believe, homeless.

It is difficult not to see some collusion and pocket lining going on here between a Tory council, a Tory led government and the private sector, all at taxpayers cost. The lack of transparency about the situation does not allay fears that tax payers money is being wasted and existing valuable education provision is being sacrificed.

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