Free schools, in theory, have to abide by the Admissions Code
. But who censures the schools when their admissions criteria either flout or bend the Code?
Free schools are forbidden to give priority to independent feeder schools. But Langley Hall Primary Academy
in Stroud gives priority to children attending the paid-for, attached nursery, Wellingtons, after children whose home is in an area “traditionally served by the schools’ catchment area“ but before distance from the school. When asked about this, Lord Hill, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, said that he understood that while the nursery was independent local parents could apply for a place as part of their entitlement to free early education for three and four-year-olds. However, the Wellingtons Nursery Fees
information makes it clear that “This flexible attendance [for free entitlement] is subject to availability and by negotiation with the nursery. It is for 38 weeks of the year only.” In theory, parents can take up their free entitlement but in practice they cannot if there is no room.
The Maharishi Free School
, Lancashire, gives priority after the children of staff to “Pupils transferring from another school that is approved and supported by The International Foundation of Consciousness-based Education.” This criteria comes before geographical proximity. The DfE confirmed that this clause was “not one of the agreed criteria” and said the school was amending its website “to reflect the oversubscription criteria agreed with the Department.” The school has not yet done so.
Free schools who wish to change their agreed Admissions Code are supposed to consult. At the very least the changes should be advertised on the school’s website although this is not a legal requirement. The West London Free School’s proposed changes to allow the children of the founders to have priority have not been published on the school’s website or any news about the consultation. Instead, primary schools within a five mile radius have been given the information and asked to let parents know. The primary schools, therefore, have to take the responsibility and stand the cost of a consultation required from another school.
Langley Hall Primary Academy and the West London Free School may be following the letter of the law but they are not abiding by its spirit. And the Maharishi Free School is ignoring the DfE request to remove a clause which had not been agreed with the Department.
As more free schools are established, it is essential that proper checks are put in place to ensure they abide by the rules laid down by Parliament. Their much-hyped autonomy does not mean freedom to pay lip service to the rules or, worse, ignore the law altogether.