LGA head says free schools are not solving the demand for extra school places. Why won't the DfE tell us where the "hot spots" are?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Last night's Newsnight programme had an item on free schools in which the chair of the Local Government Association Children's Board (LGA) intimated that free schools are not opening in the areas that have real pressure on school places. Speaking to BBC Newsnight, Mr Simmonds said: "What we'd like to see is government approving free schools primarily where that will meet the basic need in that local area, and then secondarily where it begins to create surplus places to add competition to local schools." The Department for Education denied this was the case. The Department for Education (DfE) responded to the claim that many free schools are in areas with surplus places by saying "the LGA is wrong". A spokesman told Newsnight: "Free schools are already meeting the demand for school places in areas where they are needed most. The vast majority of open mainstream free schools are in areas with the greatest pressure on places. And more than two-thirds of those planning to open from 2013 and beyond will also be in areas of basic need".

What is the truth? Why are the statistics on the places that have the most need for extra school places not freely available? Once again, we see how this policy is shrouded in secrecy. We have to trust the DfE without them providing any firm evidence to back up their points. This is despite the fact that the opposition has raised major concerns about this issue.
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/12/2012 - 14:39

Free schools are not being provided only in areas with a shortage. The New Schools Network (NSN) listed 20 LAs where there is an expected shortfall of school places in 2014/15. It should be expected, therefore, that the majority of free schools would be in these areas. But new primary free schools were provided in only four of the primary shortage hotspots (5 primaries in total) and extra secondary places (three schools in total) only appeared in three of the 20 LAs where forecasts showed that extra places would be needed (see side bar "So why are free schools established?" for more information and links to NSN data).

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/12/2012 - 15:07

The BBC found that a quarter of the free schools which opened this year are significantly under subscribed. One of these was featured on Newsnight, Sandymoor Free School in Runcorn.

Sandymoor had a proposed Published Admission Number (PAN) of 90 (reduced to 80 for 2012/13) a year but opened with just 20 year 7 and 8 pupils in temporary buildings. The school told Newsnight that it now had 38 pupils. It hopes to increase its PAN to 120.

One pupil was interviewed and said she was happy at the school after initial reluctance (she had been moved from another secondary school where she had settled). She welcomed the small class size. Newsnight revealed that Sandymoor is to get a new building, paid for from capital from the DfE, for a potential 900 pupils.

Last year the Council said Sandymoor would threaten existing schools. Two of Runcorn's secondary schools are already undersubscribed. It surely cannot be justified for the DfE to fund the building of a brand new school in such circumstances.




Anastasia Ignatieff's picture
Fri, 14/12/2012 - 15:57

The small number of free schools that currently exist in Britain have had to contend with all kinds of hurdles in order to set themselves up, particularly from the NUT.

Here are the highly politicised comments of Martin Powell-Davies, member of the NUT national executive:

'It’s certainly clear that London desperately needs more school places......Johnson wants to lead on setting up “a new generation of free schools” through a “New Schools for London” agency. Regrettably......the ‘London Councils’ body has responded that it will help in “identifying and promoting innovative practice in using space for learning”.

In short, it seems Council leaders just want to share in the work of overseeing the privatisation of London’s education and the cramming of our youngsters into unsuitable accommodation.

If the main political parties lack the political will to fight these plans, than a huge responsibility falls on the NUT, as by far the biggest teaching Union in the capital, to campaign against them.'

According to Patrick Roach, of the teaching union NASUWT, free schools will ‘spread fascism.’

However, free schools enjoy cross party support:

'Free schools are Labour's invention. They were a crucial part of our drive to promote equality of opportunity and social mobility, particularly in disadvantaged communities with low educational standards. Independent report after report has shown that they work, and most of them are wildly popular with parents, so the issue for Labour is how we take them forward, not whether we are for or against them. (Andrew Adonis)'

So the likelihood is that they are here to stay.

If London Councils are as good as their word in 'identifying and promoting innovative practice in using space for learning' (bless), then forthcoming London area free schools will undoubtedly set up where there is a need for extra school places in London as per the Mayor of London's plan.

Criticisms based on the tiny number of free schools already established, often in the teeth of politically motivated opposition, might seem, to the apolitical, and in the words of Beverly Moss, to be 'a bit previous'

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/12/2012 - 18:21

Anastasia - the extreme views of one union offical don't detract from the main argument that free schools are being established where there is no need for places. In some cases they have been allowed to open in areas where there are already surplus places.

It is now law that no new school can be established that is not either an academy or a free school. This will cause problems for local authorities who need to find extra places - they will have to tout around for a chain or a group willing to start a free school. And LAs don't have the power to direct an academy or free school to expand if the area needs extra places which could place an intolerable burden on existing community schools. Conversely, LAs can't close academies or free schools if the need for places falls.

And the jury's still out as to whether free schools are serving the disadvantaged pupils that Lord Adonis claims they will. In the quote you provided, Lord Adonis says that "independent report after report has shown that they work". But what "independent report after report" is he referring to? A major review of the evidence linking market forces to educational outcomes found that the evidence was inconclusive and fragmentary (see faqs above).

Anastasia Ignatieff's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 07:17

I think the problem most right thinking people will have with statements like ' free schools are being established where there is no need for places' is that they bear an uncanny resemblance to other statements like ' Stephen Twigg, said new schools were often being set up in areas where there was a surplus of places' (from the link in the view above) and so appear to be polemical rather than balanced.

The proportion of academies and free schools to state funded 'mainstream' schools has risen from only 2.3% 18 months ago to 11.8% in Sept 2012.

Of that proportion, 79 are free schools, 55 of which started in September 2012

The vast majority are therefore still in their first year.

To the unjaundiced eye, criticisms at this early stage might seem to be somewhat premature and of uncertain motivation.

Certainly in London, there is a commitment from the recently re-elected Mayor of London and London Councils that Free Schools will be set up wherever they are most needed.

'We want all schoolchildren across the capital to have an education that is rigorous and challenging, regardless of their background.' (Munira Mirza, Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture).

I have no doubt that, where Councils actively encourage the establishment of free schools, they will be placed where most needed.

Setting up a new school involves a huge amount of, mainly bureaucracy induced, hard work.

Those setting up non profit making free schools are doing so as a vocation and want to set up where they feel the school is required rather than, necessarily, where councils feel they need to be set up.

At least consider it possible that, in a profit making context, more resources and a broader base of start up volunteers might become available, permitting Councils to direct a greater number of free school start ups to areas of greatest need at this early stage of the policy.

That's one of the reasons why the profit motive should be there.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 08:25

Anastasia - few people would disagree with the statement that all children (whether in London or not) should have a good education. However, tthere is no reason why this can't be achieved in community schools (the London Challenge shows that). But this statement is used to imply that performance can only rise if there are free schools or academies. Yet Henry Stewart's research (backed up by academics from Leeds and Manchester universities) shows that academies do no better than non-academy school despite all they hype that surrounds them. And PriceWaterhouseCoopers in 2008 (backed up by Ofsted in 2011) found that when schools improved they employed similar strategies which had nothing to do with a school's status.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 08:29

Anastasia - establishing a new school does, indeed, involved a huge amount of work (this applies whatever group or authority is doing it). It doesn't follow, however, that future results are equal to the amount of work required in setting something up. There are plenty of failed enterprises as well as successful ones which have required a great deal of effort to bring them about.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 08:35

Anastasia - profit-making firms were allowed to run Sweden's free schools. This is often used as a reason by supporters of profit-making schools. However, Sweden is having second thoughts - the Swedish education ministry has just started an inquiry into the motivation of these firms. The Swedish education minister told the BBC that there could be a conflict of interest between the educational needs of the children and the need to make a profit.

As Sam Freedman, one of Mr Gove's special advisors, said about profit-making education providers: "They are not interested for altruistic reasons. It's an investment."


Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 08:17

Anastasia - So, most "right thinking people" will have problems with a statement which says that free schools are being established where there is no need for extra places. You then say that this is "polemical".

1 The New Schools Network (which promotes free schools) has provided a helpful list based on DfE statistics of where extra places will be needed.

2 One would expect, therefore, that the majority (if not all) free schools would be set up where these extra places are required. But the evidence shows that this is not the case.

3 The fact that the majority of free schools are only in their first year doesn't detract from the fact that the majority have been established in areas where there is no need for extra places.

It doesn't follow that only those who agree with you are "right thinking" unless you are using "right" to mean right-wing as opposed to correct. Words can be so slippery.

Anastasia Ignatieff's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 12:53

You have a big problem here:

'The generation born in the UK this year is likely to lose £4.5 trillion in economic output over their lifetime because UK schools aren't delivering what other countries' education systems show can be achieved. In other words, deficiencies in the UK's school systems amount to the equivalent of a permanent recession - one that could be avoided.'

The OECD itself has noted how increased expenditure per pupil in the last decade has failed to generate improvements due to bureaucratic sclerosis within the English education system.

'The UK is a case in point: expenditure per student has increased by 68 per cent over the past decade and yet Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results have remained flat. More generally, spending per student explains less than a fifth of the performance differences between countries.'


Your readers and commentators are well capable of deciding for themselves whether the similarity between your statement ‘free schools are being established where there is no need for places’ and the Guardian's comment ‘Stephen Twigg, said new schools were often being set up in areas where there was a surplus of places’ may 'appear to be polemical rather than balanced.' For they are, of course, right thinking people.

I would be astonished if they all agreed with me but thank you for the compliment.

Without a for profit incentive, free schools have been set up by enthusiasts wherever they can find willing parents and students. However excellent a thing that might be, it does not, as you say, address the need for extra school places where they occur.

Nevertheless, it is clear that council bureaucracy is catching up, particularly in London.

It needs to.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 13:53

Anastasia - your link didn't go to the page which contained the quote but to a page with a large number of articles in a side panel. Fortunately, I was familiar with the article, by Andreas Schleicher (OECD), as it had previously appeared in TES. However, your cherry-picked quote is not the whole story as this response by John Bangs makes clear:

"Make no mistake, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has told Michael Gove that his education policies are failing... This is seismic, for it is OECD evidence that Gove consistently cites to shoehorn in his reforms."

"The force of Andreas Schleicher's article rests not so much in his comment that England's flat performance is a result of deficiencies that are the equivalent of a permanent recession as in his proposals for change. His emphasis on creative thinking, problem-solving, formative assessment and creating a teaching profession of autonomous, high-level knowledge workers is a million miles from the government's current strategy of balkanising the education system, ignoring the teaching profession's professional needs and returning to traditional exams."

"Courtesy probably prevented Mr Schleicher from being even sharper. The OECD is clear that at the heart of every outstanding education system are teacher policies that have been created in partnership with the profession and that education reforms will never be embedded without teachers' involvement."

"Despite Gove's reforming international zeal, Mr Schleicher exposes him as a Little Englander. The lesson is there. Until the government performs the mother of all U-turns and truly learns its lessons from international evidence, England will never achieve an outstanding education system."

Schleicher's article and the response can be found here:


Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 14:07

Anastasia - "council bureacracy" has a statutory duty to manage the supply of school places. But the Government has actually made fulfilling this statutory duty almost impossible as a report jointly commisioned by the Department for Education (DfE) and the Local Government Association (LGA) makes clear (see threads below).

Francis's article at the top of this thread highlights another LGA concern - that free schools are being established where extra places are not needed. Oddly, the DfE spokesperson denied this when the evidence shows otherwise and the DfE's own commissioned report listed the problems caused to school place supply by the Government's own policies.



Anastasia Ignatieff's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 18:57

John Bangs was the NUT Head of Education until 2010.

Mr Schleicher clearly refers to the previous decade in his comments regarding the lack of progress in English education.

The thrust of Mr Schleicher's argument is in fact summed up so:

'countries as diverse as Finland and Singapore show that it is possible to elevate teaching to a profession of high-level knowledge workers, who work autonomously and contribute to the profession within a collaborative culture.'

This must surely strike a chord?

The sniping from the sidelines at educational reform by erstwhile Trades Union leaders shows the challenge you have to any forward movement in your country's educational progress.

Anastasia Ignatieff's picture
Mon, 17/12/2012 - 13:18

The March 2011 OECD UK economic survey makes the following points:

'Schooling outcomes in the United Kingdom are among the more unequal in the OECD area.....unequal educational outcomes partly reflect a complex, multi–layered and poorly
functioning deprivation funding system for primary and secondary schools in England.

The implicit compensation for disadvantaged students that the government provides to local authorities is only partially spent on disadvantaged schools and students.

Despite sharply rising school spending per pupil during the last ten years.......Average PISA scores, measuring cognitive skills of 15–year olds, have been stagnant

Evidence suggests that improvement in exam grades is out of line with independent indicators of performance, suggesting grade inflation could be a significant factor.'

The OECD goes on to make a number of recommendations, including:

Entry of new schools should be encouraged even if it temporarily creates some excess capacity.

Decisions on opening new schools should rely on the quality of the business plan and should not be left to local authorities but to another appropriate body

Further develop value–added indicators of schools’ educational output to provide
more relevant information to parents, students and regulators.

Increase the emphasis within inspection on teaching and learning including
through more lesson observation and assessment of pupils’ work, so that
inspectors consider this evidence alongside attainment data in reaching their
judgements on the effectiveness of schools.

Develop methods to measure educational outcomes through independently
collected data as a complement to grades and test scores.

Ensure that universities and employers have a greater say in qualification content
and procedures (A–levels and GCSEs).'

The UK government appears to an outsider like me to be addressing many of these matters in very much the way that the OECD recommends.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/12/2012 - 11:29

Anastasia - John Bangs was indeed NUT Head of Education. He is now Senior Consultant to the EI General Secretary, and Chair, Education, Employment and Training Working Group, Trade Union Advisory Committee at OECD.

Yes, the OECD has a Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) on which "erstwhile" union leaders sit. The OECD describes TUAC as follows:

"TUAC was founded in 1948, and following the creation of the OECD, it was recognised as an independent body entitled to represent the views of trade unions vis à vis the OECD. It comprises 56 national trade union centres in OECD Member countries, and thus represents some 70 million organised workers."

It appears, then, that the OECD respects Trades Unions and listens to them. It does not, as Mr Gove and his supporters do, paint trades unionists as "enemies of promise", "Trots" and so on. It does not, as Mr Gove does, try to pick fights with the unions.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/12/2012 - 11:35

Mr Schleicher is correct - teaching should be viewed as a "profession of high-level knowledge workers who work autonomously". How does Mr Gove intend to do this? He allows academies and free schools to employ untrained teachers, he removes teacher training from universities thereby depriving trainee teachers of the theoretical base which is held in such high esteem in Finland that teachers are expected to have a Masters Degree in such theory, he describes teaching as a "craft" and tells teachers what they should teach via a prescriptive national curriculum at primary level. He undermines collaboration between teachers and schools by introducing competition and what he calls "choice".

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/12/2012 - 11:40

Anastasia - although I respect Schleicher's opinions, he is wrong to talk about "lack of progress" in English education in the last decade. Schleicher knows that the 2000 PISA results for the UK are flawed and his own organisation has warned that they shouldn't be used for comparison. Schleicher has even called Mr Gove's use of these figures as a bit "dodgy". And the PISA results are contradicted by other education league tables (see faqs above).

In any case, it's important to keep these league tables in proportion. They test a limited number of subjects at set ages. They should not be used to judge a whole school system.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/12/2012 - 17:27

Anastasia - there is much, much more to OECD advice than you have quoted. OECD did indeed say that new schools should be encouraged but it also said that the policy would need careful monitoring if it were not to impact unfavourably on the already disadvantaged. And it said the pupil premium was a positive move towards overcoming disadvantage.

The Government would have to fund excess places if the OECD advice was taken - it will not do this in the present climate. So if the number of surplus places is increased because a free school is opened then this has a negative effect on other schools.

You are right that OECD recommended further value-added indicators - Mr Gove abolished contextual value added which OECD said was a step in the right direction.

I am always surprised when OECD uses the 2000 UK PISA figures when it says that they were flawed and should not be used for comparison. And as I've said other international tests contradict PISA (see faqs above and latest post re PIRLS).

However, since you appear to appreciate what the OECD has to say then here are some threads which deal with its advice:

The OECD suggested reasons why socio-economic disadvantage has a negative implace on pupil performance:


The OECD found that the highest performing education systems across OECD countries tend to combine quality with equity:


One question, therefore, is how equitable is the English education system and whether government policies will make it more or less equitable. A second question is what makes an effective school. Both questions dealt with here:


OECD found that inclusion is the key to successful school system:


Teachers for the modern world need multiple approaches to improving learning and governments should nurture teachers:


That said, Schleicher told Mr Gove that spending money on professional development of existing teachers would raise performance more quickly than concentrating on teacher training:


And the OECD also recommends investing in early years education. Government cuts are causing Sure Start centres to close:


OECD and others highlight the importance of carers reading to children. Gove slashed funding for Bookstart in 2010.


Finally, OECD found that Finland's successful system was built on slow, careful reform built on consensus. It was not the result of high-profile policies by individual governments or politicians.


Anastasia Ignatieff's picture
Mon, 17/12/2012 - 18:16

It seems strange to be so ambivalent about OECD recommendations on UK education reform whilst quoting the OECD so often as an authority.

You seemed, at least to me, to be on much surer ground when referencing the EIU report which, you will recall, made the following valuable insights:

'the most striking result of the search for correlations is the overall paucity of clear linkages'

Dr Finn says of studies looking at high-performing school systems, “I don’t detect many similarities other than high standards, solid curriculum, competent teachers and a supportive culture that is education minded.”

'Other research might point to the importance of school choice and school autonomy.'

'what may set Finland and South Korea apart is that in both, ideas about education have also been shaped by a significant underlying moral purpose.'

Both of these moral purposes can cause difficulties in different ways. The high expectations and pressure mean that studies regularly find South Korean teenagers
to be the least happy in the OECD. In Finland, the egalitarian system seems less effective at helping highly talented students to perform to the best of their ability than at making sure average results are high.'

Professor Sahlberg frequently makes a similar point in a different way

'However, school reformers......need to be careful when considering equity-based reform ideas to be imported from Finland. Many elements of Finnish successful school system are interwoven in the surrounding welfare state. Simply a transfer of these solutions would add another chapter to already exhausting volume of failed education reforms.'

I am not here to defend your government but I am surprised to see OECD reports quoted approvingly on this site whilst England's education reforms, many recommended by the OECD itself, are roundly condemned.

After all:

'Education remains an art, and much of what engenders quality is difficult to quantify.'

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 18/12/2012 - 08:42

Anastasia - your reply followed a long post in which I pointed out reams of OECD reports which go against what this Government is doing.

You are, however, right that OECD found that the best-performing school systems tend to be those that allow schools most autonomy. The OECD found in 2009 (before the present Government was elected) that UK was among only four countries that allowed a high degree of autonomy for resource allocation, spending the budget and courses offered in secondary schools (see faqs above).

I'm surprised that you should imply that because I quoted "Other research might point to the importance of school choice..." that I supported that statement from the EIU report. The "other research" came from one academic paper which considered only 29 of the 40 countries that took part in PISA 2003 in the light of Catholic “resistance” to state education. PISA 2003 did not support Wooessmann's findings - it flatly contradicted them (see last four paragraphs of the link below).


However, I fully support your final sentence. Education is indeed an art - that's why politicians with no experience of actual teaching should be every careful about imposing their ideas about education onto those who actually deliver it.

Anastasia Ignatieff's picture
Tue, 18/12/2012 - 10:53

The OECD recommendation on increased school choice seems based on simple logic.

'One way to ensure that schools spend deprivation funds on the disadvantaged student is to improve user choice for these students. User choice remains relatively limited for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as admission criteria by residence limit choice geographically.

User choice is also limited by low supply flexibility through entry and exit and high capacity utilisation, leaving locally maintained schools with a captive market. Entry of new schools should be encouraged even if it temporarily creates some excess capacity. Decisions on opening new schools should rely on the quality of the business plan and should not be left to local authorities but to another appropriate body.'

Monopolies and captive markets always lead to a poor user outcome.

On your other point, are you suggesting that your current government is reducing autonomy?

That would clearly be a move in the wrong direction.

I have no idea whether you support any or all the excellent recommendations of 'The Learning Curve.'

That is, of course, entirely a matter for you but I thank you for giving it so much prominence.

You are fortunate to live in a democracy that is a beacon of hope for much of the world.

Politicians in Britain are, I am sure, like everywhere else, a mixed bag but here you have your excellent civil service and free press.

You also seem to have a high level of political consensus as to what is required.

I remain puzzled as to why your apparently somewhat moderate and beneficial reforms arouse such strong feelings.

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