The government answers my questions about Free Schools -- well, some of them...

Francis Gilbert's picture
I have been delving more into Free Schools and put a number of questions to the Department for Education. They were kind enough to respond. I am not sure I asked any killer questions (suggestions please for next time!) but their evasions are interesting; note the continued stonewalling about capital costs, the lack of clarity about what happens when a free school fails, the vagueness over just what pupils will be populating the private schools that become free schools. The only decisive news here is the categorical ruling out of "for-profit" schools, which the right-wing have been arguing for. I think this is an acknowledgement that the free school movement will always be very small; the only way that the huge capital costs for building free schools could be covered would be through allowing the "for-profit" model, thus motivating business to take the risk of investing in a school. At the moment, the taxpayer takes all the risk -- with no clear exit strategy if the project fails. NOTE: these questions were asked before the new list of approved free schools was published on 9th May. My questions are in bold and their answers are not.

Does the tightening up of the application process for Free Schools really indicate that the government acknowledges that too many unsuitable groups were applying?

No. We began the Free Schools programme as soon as possible after the election because of the urgent need for more good schools. Demand for Free Schools has been higher than expected. We have received many high quality proposals from a wide range of groups.

The Department has been learning as the programme develops and we have talked to the people who have run the most successful Charter School systems in America. As taxpayers would expect, we are trying to make everything simpler, more effective and cheaper – while getting new high quality schools to open as quickly as possible. The changes we are making will improve school standards and give taxpayers even better value for money.


Is finding a private provider really the only viable way of setting up a Free School now? How can groups of parents/teachers possibly have time/resources to tackle the application process now?

No. We’re clear that we want to encourage a diverse range of groups to set up Free Schools. But it's absolutely right that all groups are able to demonstrate that they have the capacity and capability to run a school by submitting a full application. This doesn't mean that groups of parents and teachers that want to set up schools will not have access to any help or guidance. The New Schools Network is available to provide practical support.

Why did the government not go for the "for-profit" model whereby Free Schools raise their own capital funds and can make a profit? Wouldn't this have been cheaper for the taxpayer? At the moment, the taxpayer has all the liability if the Free School fails?

We have no plans to allow Free Schools to make a profit.  The trust will remain accountable for the performance of the school and for the effective and proper use of public funding.


What happens if a Free School fails or doesn't get sufficient numbers? Can it be shut down?

As with any state funded school, Free Schools will be inspected by Ofsted and will be monitored by the Government. We have always been clear that if a Free School underperforms, then it will be subject to the same measures applied to other state funded schools.


All proposers have to show evidence that there is parental demand in their area for a new school. A group’s business case also needs to explain how the school will attract pupils and be financially viable. We will closely monitor Free Schools, like all schools, to ensure that they provide value for money for the taxpayer.

How many applications for free schools in total up to this date?

323 proposals were received in the first application wave, which opened in June 2010 and closed in February 2011. This information available on our website:

How many are religious groups?

We have had 115 faith applications in total, out of 323 proposals received (answered in a Lords written PQ on 22 March).

How many will be successful?

Out of the 323 proposals received in the first wave of applications (which closed on 11 February 2011) 40 groups are currently at business case and plan stage. Of these 17 are at pre-opening stage (meaning that the business case has been approved), and of these four groups have signed a funding agreement with the Secretary of State. No more groups will move to business case stage from the first wave of applications.


We anticipate that between 10 and 20 Free Schools will open in September. Others aim to open in 2012 or beyond.


How many Free Schools are anticipated to be in place at the end of this government's term?

We haven’t set any targets for the number of free schools. Free Schools are driven by parental demand for new schools that meet for the needs and demands of their community.

Rough estimates of capital costs incurred so far and for next year? Why is Partnership for Schools involved in building these schools when they appear to be so extravagant? Where is the money coming from for the capital costs of these schools?

In June 2010, when we launched the policy, we announced that there would be £50m available for free schools capital projects for 2010/11. This funding was from the Harnessing Technology Grant to create a Standards and Diversity Fund. The capital allocations beyond this have not yet been finalised.


Partnerships for Schools is a Government funded organisation, which has the knowledge and expertise required to support Free School capital projects.


We plan to release the capital costs for individual Free School projects after the schools have opened, and when there are no longer commercial sensitivities.


Including DfE, New Schools Network and Schools Commissioner, how many people are working on Free Schools? A Parliamentary question revealed, 91 people recently at the DfE, is it more now? There are 97 civil servantsin the Free Schools group in the Department for Education. This was answered in a commons written PQ answered on Tues 15 March (figure also used at NUT conference).


The Schools Commissioner and her team work right across the Department – not just on Free Schools - on a range of different policy areas. Her role will be to:

  • broker academy arrangements between schools that would benefit most from an academy solution and established sponsors with a good track record of performance improvement

  • encourage and recruit more potential academy sponsors

  • enthuse leaders of good schools to go for academy status

  • raise the profile of Free Schools among prospective proposers.

You will need to speak to the New Schools Network about its staffing, as it is an independent charity.


Why are independent schools such as Batley Grammar and Maharishi Yogi School being given Free School status? Wouldn't this mean that the siblings of these private school pupils will get preferential treatment in the new admissions' process, in other words guaranteeing these "ex-independent" schools a cohort of children from prosperous backgrounds?

No. Although Independent schools can apply to become Free Schools (and therefore become state-funded independent schools), they will need to meet the strict entry criteria – including an agreement that their admissions policy is in line with the statutory Admissions Code. Independent schools applying to become Free Schools will not be able to retain any existing academic selection admission arrangements.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Naomi Bos's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 22:25

Wow - I didn't realise that current independent schools could 'switch' to being free schools and change from privately funded to state funded. Curse, snarl, stamp, fume, pace, grump, mutter, hrumph.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 09:29

Has anyone seen the article by Peter Hyman in the Times this morning,apparently praising free schools? (I don't get the Times and am not prepared to pay to cross Murdoch's firewall!) . I enjoyed his book 1 out of 10 and am rather surprised he has taken this view. I wonder what his arguments are and what people think of them.

I agree with Francis that, on present trends, the free school movement is going to remain small. Which begs the question if the state school system is in the mess that the right claim (and read David Starkey's ludicrous speech in Brighton yesterday) how are free schools, which are unlikely to be educating more than 2 or 3% of children by the end of this parliament, the answer?

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 09:40

Hello Adrian

Yes I have Peter Hyman's Times piece here. I will cut and paste it and open a new Post and you can read it there.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 09:45

I read the article and looked at the website here . As far as I can see many of their worthy aspirations are shared by the majority of good maintained schools, and much of the work they describe is already going on in many schools. I find the presumption that all these new schools will automatically be good, or better, than existing schools interesting. It doesn't appear to be based on any real evidence, in fact most of the evidence from abroad suggests that a substantial proportion of free/charter schools are set up too quickly and subsequently fail.
Also interested in how many new free schools are promising small class sizes. I wonder how they are going to afford that if their budgets are going to be similar to other schools. Or are they going to get extra money from somewhere?.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 09:46

Sorry - I spoke in haste. My (free) subscription for the month has run out and i'm not renewing it for the same reasons you didn't subscribe in the first place!

Adrian Elliott's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 10:06

Thanks Fiona.

I've looked at the article and the website. As you say his vision is one which I am sure is shared by other schools in Newham which I understand is one of the fastest improving authorities in England. I would be interested to know their views on the proposal.

On the plus side , I am pleased he doesn't find it necessary to denigrate existing state schools.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 10:29

It would be interesting to know what the site for the school is in Stratford - an existing school, premises to be converted into a school, purpose built?

One of the problems facing free school committees and indeed the DfE is the sheer difficulty of finding, renovating and converting buildings to be fit for purpose as a school. Old buildings may be lovely but they are difficult and expensive to adapt and maintain, teachers and parents won't have millions in the bank to build a school or guarantee a lease (the government said they would do the latter but, to my knowledge, have not yet actually done so) and the DfE budget is not going to stretch anyway near wide enough to build from scratch more than a handful of schools.

As both Fiona and Adrian have said, the vision of the school is really no different from most maintained schools. Whether they can meet those challenges puts them in the same boat as other schools, not above them. It is not the good intentions or ideologies of free school committees which have slowed down progress, but lack of knowledge about how to set up, run, manage all aspects of a school and the cost of finding, adapting or building schools which is proving difficult to overcome.

John Davies's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 13:02

It is there again stated almost in passing

"We plan to release the capital costs for individual Free School projects after the schools have opened, and when there are no longer commercial sensitivities".
Commercal sensitivities; commercial confidentiality - an exact parallel with 'Monitor, the outfit for 'quality control' for the NHS.

When asked about why patients were not informed of bed closures in Foundation Hospitals, the Chair, David Bennett in a Radio 4 report argued that such hospitals had their own, individaul approach to transparency; difficult [as usual] decisions relating to the balance between accountabilty and [yes here is comes the C word ] 'commercial sensitivity'.

The predictability of this is tedious.

John Davies's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 13:09

I guess to Adrian Ellitot's query what will fill the Gove shaped hole left by Free Schools - Academies ?
On the Daily Poltics yesterday 11/05/11 Frazer Nelson Spectator editor boasted about the increase in Academies.

Allasn Beavis's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 13:16

John - The Anti Academies Alliance have a different perspective, This set of tables from, shows that “the number of schools that are not becoming Academies remains the vast majority in most local authorities in the country. This is the evidence that the government don’t want anybody to notice.”

erik wagter's picture
Mon, 10/10/2011 - 18:46

Can anyone tell me what's the mimimum number of pupils required to start a free school. Last Christmas we had to make the decision to take our 9 year old son ( diagnosed with autism ) out of school as this was not the ideal place to teach an intelligent child who has sensory overload issues. As a parent we had to build a classroom in the garden, employ a teacher without any funding what so ever, while free schools ( parents who want something different for their children ) are funded by the state.

If there is no minimum number of pupils required could I start a free school for 1 pupil and receive state funding?

If you know the answer I would love to hear from you.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.