“Many free schools are ‘significantly undersubscribed’”, the BBC has found

Janet Downs's picture
A quarter of second-wave free schools are “significantly under subscribed”, figures obtained by BBC Radio 4 programme, The Report (11/10/12) suggest.

The BBC contacted all 55 free schools that opened this September. 41 schools replied and 14 of these had “significant spare capacity, many with either a half or a third of their places unfilled.”

Free schools are supposed to fulfil a demand but this demand doesn’t always come to fruition. Three free schools in Bradford, Newham and a sixth-form in Cheshire had the plug pulled at the eleventh-hour – the Government cited insufficient interest. Other free schools, like those in Suffolk, are established in areas with surplus places. Jeremy Rowe, head of Sir John Lehman High in Beccles where the Beccles Free School has opened despite local opposition, told The Report that both schools could end up offering the same narrow range of options. Far from extending choice, it could be reduced - two small schools would offer less than one larger school. £2 million has been spent on Beccles Free School and it is only half full. Saxmundham Free School, which is run by the same trust as Beccles Free School, is also only half full.

The Report revealed that there is supposed to be an impact assessment carried out for each proposed free school. However, the Government has not complied with Freedom of Information requests to publish these assessments.

Lord Hill told the programme that there was a range of reasons why the schools were not full and Rachel Wolf, New Schools Network, cited teething troubles which could be expected given the number of schools which were being opened. She told The Report that all first-wave free schools were over-subscribed for September 2012. And pupils at Bedford Free School said they were happy there although one grumbled about the long school day. Headteacher, Mark Lehain, said the extra hours were necessary for enrichment which would include interview preparation, something that most secondary schools have done routinely for years, and how to prepare a dinner party for six people.

Sweden is often cited as an example of how free schools work. However, The Report revealed that Mr Gove dropped Sweden from the roll-call of effective education systems given at the Conservative conference. Bertil Ostberg, State Secretary for Education in Sweden, one of the pioneers of Swedish free schools, told the BBC that an inquiry is being set up because of increasing concerns about the motives of the owners of companies which run free schools. In Sweden, free schools can be run for profit, something that is not happening yet in England although both Mr Gove and Lord Hill are “relaxed” about allowing this in the future. And one Swedish company, IES, has already won a contract to run a free school in Breckland. The Swedish Government wants assurances from the owners of free schools that they are interested in long-term engagement and will not sell the schools for short-term gain. Bringing in the profit motive resulted in conflicting interests – those of the child versus the needs of shareholders for a financial return.

Lord Hill defended the opening of free schools in areas where there were already spare places because he says it would introduce competition. However, the evidence that market forces improve education achievement and efficiency is “fragmented and inconclusive” (see “Do market forces in education increase achievement and efficiency?” in faqs above) and a recent, little-publicised, Government report confirmed this.

Listen to the 30 minute programme here.

UPDATE 15 May 2013  Bertil Ostberg's job as State Secretary in the Swedish Education ministry is not the same as the English Secretary of State for Education.  Mr Ostberg is an appointed civil servant.

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