Free schools policy runs out of steam

Fiona Millar's picture
Jeevan Vasager , the education editor of the Guardian hints today that Michael Gove and the DFE maybe going a little cold on the free school idea. That chimes with reports I have heard that the DFE is realising that they underestimated the difficulty of  finding sites and the cost of converting existing buildings . If we are indeed only going to see a further 50 free schools this September - making a grand total of 74 after two and a half years of the coalition government and 16 of which will by UTCs specialising in  vocational training  for 14-19 years olds-  it really does sound as if the policy is shaping up to be a bit of a flop. This may be why the government has switched attention back to academy conversion, forcible or otherwise.

The New Schools Network, a charity set up by Michael Gove to help deliver free schools, appears to think that free school bidders should either just be given cash directly by government and then allowed to find and negotiate for  own premises or they should be allowed to raise private capital,  presumably in return for delivering a profit - an idea that is always lurking around in the background of the policy.Rachel Wolf, director of the NSN, says: "It is clearly true that if you allow an injection of private capital, you allow new institutions to form."

I have got a better idea. The money set aside for free schools should now be re-directed towards capital investment in existing school buildings and the creation of new primary places in existing schools where the demand is highest. I believe this would be popular with many schools and parents and it would  save Mr Gove from having quite a lot of egg on his face at the end of this Parliament.

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Jane Eades's picture
Wed, 18/04/2012 - 18:55

The DfE has failed to respond sensibly to my FoI request asking how much the aborted Michaela Community School bid has cost so far. I have put in an appeal to the Information Commissioner.

MCS have paid for consultants to set up a website, leaflets for both Lambeth and Wandsworth, hire of halls for public meetings in both Lambeth and Wandsworth, cost of paid leafletters, glossy brochures for both locations, a consultant on the curriculum, cost of appointing 2 senior staff members (are they now jobless?) and, presumably, even more costs.

Interesting that those who were happily named on the MCS website seem to have had their names removed.

What a waste of money and presumably this is the same with all the other aborted schemes. Perhaps that is why the DfE won't answer my questions.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 18/04/2012 - 20:00

This article is quite useful:

It says that the NUT has reported that 126 full-time equivalent staff at the Department for Education are working on the free schools programme it has tracked £337.2 million in payments supporting the free schools and academies programmes since May 2010.despite just 24 being open and only another 79 being approved to open this year (many of which don't have buildings by the sound of it).

The DFE needs to put all these resources and more on to making sure there are enough primary places in September (and beyond) RIGHT NOW. The teaching jobs need to be advertised now.

Tim Bidie's picture
Wed, 18/04/2012 - 20:37

In the words of that great England Football Captain, that would be 'like deja vu all over again!'

'the benign economic environment which New Labour confronted at
these junctures can plausibly be seen as a key factor enabling the development of their
education and governing projects. New Labour‟s education project was premised on
steeply rising investment in education throughout its period in office. This additional
investment was crucial in preventing the formation of a coalition of resistance against the
more radical aspects of its educational agenda. Funnelling the money directly to schools
from the department of education also allowed New Labour‟s education strategists to
circumvent existing policy „blockages‟ in the form of potentially obstructive departmental
and local bureaucracies or vested professional interests (Barber 2007). New Labour
pursued a „carrot-and-stick‟ approach to public service reform by offering money in
return for modernisation, but this tactic is simply not available to the Conservative-led

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 08:48

Tim - thanks for the link. At the same time that New Labour was "funnelling the money directly to schools" it was also spinning the "success" of academy status. This deception is summarised on the thread below:

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 08:46

Gove certainly needs to do something about unblocking the premises issue for free schools.

The Michaela school had wide parental and community support in Lambeth. But the council sold off its earmarked site to a property developer to build luxury flats the day before DfE greenlighted the Michaela bid. No doubt Lambeth is strapped for cash (why else would its chief exec volunteer for a cut to his £213k + salary?), but to many the decision smacked of ideological malice and political sabotage.

Gove & Eric Pickles need to arm themselves with powers to effect compulsory purchase orders and override the specious objections raised by local planning departments. It's time to take the gloves off.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 09:26

No it's time to focus on in the issue of primary places for this September. If it does this the government will regain the support and respect of the LAs.

Sarah's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 12:11

Ricky - why should a free school trump all other purposes to which a council asset could be put including fulfilling the council's responsibility to obtain best value in disposing of its assets. What other services may benefit from the capital receipt achieved in respect of that site? Given that the local authority has responsibility for planning school places and did not support the proposal surely the council must be able to achieve a commercial reciept to recycle back into service provision. In some instances there are community supported proposals for use of surplus school buildings that are in jeophardy because the DfE will not approve their disposal in case a free school proposal comes forward - it is taking upwards of six months to get approval to such disposals - that isn't localism. Lambeth Council is democratically elected and took the decision about disposal in accordance with the law and its own processes - how can you possibly object to that.

'specious objections' - often these are objections from the very communities in which these schools are proposed - surely the people in the area should have a say about what developments take place in their community - once again, isn't that what localism is all about. To suggest that Gove and Pickles should ride roughshod over local objections and planning policy is hardly allowing communities to decide on how local services are delivered - it smacks of totalitarian central control.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 11:43


Gove supplied the money to deal with the September primary admissions some time ago. Now it is up to LAs to spend it.

Primary provision (and planning properly for it) is not the job of central government, but is one of the few responsibilities in education left to LAs.

Many of them have made a mess even of this modest task.That once again raises the question whether they can be trusted to do anything. More and more it seems the way forward will soon be to abolish LEAs entirely.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 13:17


I can't quite make out whether you are naive or disingenuous.

Lambeth council is 'democratically elected' much in the same way as the Assad regime in Syria, with public sector clientelism well established. Lambeth is effectively a one-party state, where the real political battles take place within the ruling Labour party as factions and individuals jockey for position. Consequently, what goes on and why is largely opaque to the public. The council has been selling off school sites to developers for large sums for many years. Yet now they complain about a primary shortage. A few weeks ago Lambeth began disposing of one of its libraries. The council had voted for a condition to be attached to the sale to the effect that the building must continue as a community resource. Various arts groups then began preparing bids for a theatre/events facility and so on. Lo and behold, when the property was put on the market "community resource" and "community access" had reportedly been re-interpreted and extended to cover use as a restaurant, bar, hotel etc. Ho hum.

The streets are filthy, the rubbish collection inadequate, the schools appalling, yet the council finds the money to mount political poster advertising campaigns against 'Tory cuts'.

Some neighbouring boroughs are very well run. Go figure. But don't make the mistake of equating this gang of chancers with "the local community".

Sarah's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 12:22

Ricky - have you any idea of the lead time for providing additional pupil places? The government have failed to listen to local authorities which have told him that allocating capital in one year block is a significant problem in planning new places. Local authorities have been caught out by the disparity between the ONS birth forecasts and the actual numbers coming through - getting good health data about actual births in an area is often problematic due to issues with data sharing with the NHS.

If local authorities are to be responsible for planning strategically for educational provision they must not face the scenario of school places being catapulted in via free schools to areas where there is no growth to justify their existence. They must be given adequate basic need funding early enough to plan and deliver new schools.

If you believe that local authorities have botched the job of pupil place planning (something I would vehemently deny - it's a complex job, more art than science) then wait and see the unholy mess if it's left for the market to determine where the provision will be. If the LA role is discarded who will ensure that new schools are planned in sufficient time to deal with major housing development and long term demographic change - do you think that will happen by osmosis? It can take many years to properly plan and commission a new school (as the free schools are now finding out) and often the housing developments on which they are predicated fail to come forward for many years or come forward in a piecemeal fashion.

Now that schools can increase their admission numbers without any involvement of the LA or Academies can refuse to expand if they don't want to most of the levers for proper strategic planning have been removed and we are facing a bit of a free for all.

This government is very good at making public bodies accountable for outcomes that it has no direct control over - a recipe for failure.

Jane Eades's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 13:56

I assume your cynicism about democratically elected councils will apply equally to Wandsworth, where it is contracting out ALL libraries (including the Big Society one) and is making swingeing cuts in order to fund its vanity projects, such as the Bolingbroke Academy. It now needs primary places because it has been selling or demolishing school buildings for years and, in the last few weeks, has demolished yet another. Well run? I should cocoa. Walk round the areas where the well healed don't live!

Even so, I would still rather Wandsworth was running education than ARK or other unaccountable (and largely inexperienced) organisations, let alone any person who has a large ego and, often, absolutely no experience.

Sarah's picture
Sat, 21/04/2012 - 17:24

The failings of a single council don't answer the general points I was making. You are right 'some boroughs are very well run'.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 09:06

The New Schools Network has always been in favour of profit-making schools (see links below). Even before the last election it co-authored a report with Policy Exchange, "Blocking the Best", which claimed that Labour's Lord Adonis was secretly in favour of profit-making schools. The issue of schools being run for profit, the authors claimed, was a nettle which needed grasping because it was politically sensitive. However, the report said it was possible to smooth the way by encouraging state schools to be "independent" - they could then outsource much of the running of the school to profit-making organisations.

Academies and free schools are deemed "independent". One free school, IES Breckland, has already outsourced the entire running of the school to IES, a profit-making Swedish organisation with no experience of the English state system.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 14:33

'Lambeth council is ‘democratically elected’ much in the same way as the Assad regime in Syria'.

This is a despicable comment which is an insult to those who are dying and suffering horribly under this regime.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 15:14

Yes, sorry it was a tasteless comparison given present circumstances. To be clear, my point was not that Lambeth behave like the Syrian government, simply that just as Syria holds multi-party elections where the result is not in doubt (the Baath Party always win), in Lambeth currently everyone knows that Labour will win, however badly they perform.

Andy's picture
Thu, 19/04/2012 - 14:54

A close reading of this article indicates some aspects that warrant further investigation, without which the article could be seen as just a politically motivated journalism:

1. The assumption that the ratio of approvals to applications evidences a lack of
support as opposed to indicating a rigourous process
2. That the beauracracy of the process equates to a lack of funding resource
3. The unsubstantiated connection between the concept of Free Schools published
in the public domain and explicit linkage to meeting the need for extra school

Fiona: I would not agree with the way in which you couched your comments about what NSN "think" should happen. Perhaps it is better to quote the article which puts it in terms of Rachel Wolf commenting on different ideas, which is not the same as saying this is what she thinks.

"Rachel Wolf, director of the NSN, says: "It is clearly true that if you allow an injection of private capital, you allow new institutions to form."

There is plenty that ministers could do to make it easier for free schools without taking this step, Wolf points out. One such action would be letting schools set up in business premises without having to seek "change of use" planning permission."

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 22/04/2012 - 08:08

Andy - what Ms Wolf thinks is made clear in the TES articles below. And, as pointed out in my post above, Ms Wolf made it clear when she co-authored the misnamed "Blocking the Best" with Policy Exchange that she was in favour of profit-making schools. When this report was published before the last election a speech-maker at its launch said, “...profit is a big issue because a lot of chains who would like to come to this country, and people who would like to expand are very much waiting for that to happen… Policy Exchange would certainly nudge very strongly in this direction.” (see LSN link below for further information and links)

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 22/04/2012 - 08:31

Andy - you say that the government should allow schools to be set up in business premises. The results of a government consultation about relaxing planning rules for free schools were published in August 2011 and showed that respondents were overwhelmingly in favour of making NO change to the existing planning framework. Respondents were concerned, among other things, on the unintended consequences of allowing free schools to be establised in existing premises without the need for planning permission. These included a concern that an absence of a planning application denied local people any involvement in the process. This lack of involvement, of course, seems to undermine the Government's alleged policy of Localism.

andy's picture
Mon, 23/04/2012 - 20:11

Sorry Janet but you misquote me (22/04/12 @ 8.31 referring to my comment 19/04/12 @ 2.54). My comment cited what Rachel Wolk is reported to have said in the Guardian article. I did not indicate whether I was in agreement with her or not.

andy's picture
Mon, 23/04/2012 - 20:24

Janet: Thank you for providing these insights into Rachel Wolf's statements made prior to the Guardian article, which are noted with interest and have been stored away on my computer.

That said, the context of my comments remain unchanged in that they are based solely on the Guardian article dated 18 April 2012.

I do have misgivings about state schools being run for profit: whether that profit arises from a contract to operate sections of the school or arising from any charge being levied against parents/carers. This however is not the discussion thread for that conversation.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 24/04/2012 - 14:17

andy - sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were saying that planning rules should be relaxed. I didn't realise that it was Ms Wolf who was still promoting the idea of relaxing planning rules months after a consultation had overwhelmingly ruled it out. I assumed, wrongly, Ms Wolf would have accepted the verdict of the consultation and would not still be pushing for planning permission to be waved aside if someone wanted to set up a free school in any "suitable" premises irrespective of the views of locals.

Thank you for pointing it out.

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