The first 24 free schools, wrote Education Secretary, Michael Gove
, faced formidable barriers before they were established. He laid the blame at the feet of Labour politicians whom he accused of corruption in their zeal to stop the establishment of free schools:
“Labour politicians tried to strangle them at birth, seeking to deny them planning permission and using every Tammany Hall trick it could to prevent their arrival. As a result, some of these schools had to open in second-choice, or even third-rate, buildings.”
5 of the 24 were existing independent schools and already had buildings. That leaves 19. How many of these 19 faced local authority (LA) opposition or difficulties in obtaining planning permission? If so, were these all Labour councils?
13 of the 19 free schools were supported by their LAs
(see addendum). These comprised Conservative and Labour councils and ones with no overall control. 5 had some reservations
(see addendum). Only one, Bradford (no overall control), opposed a proposed primary free school on the grounds that it was not needed
. The DfE took no notice – the Rainbow Primary Free School went ahead. However, Bradford can’t be labelled anti-free school because it supported the setting-up of a secondary free school, Kings Science Academy.
It appears, then, that none of the first-wave free schools was held up by opposition from Labour local authorities. The only council which came out against a proposed primary free school was one where no party had overall control and the council believed the extra places were surplus to requirements.
Perhaps Mr Gove was thinking about the second-wave free schools. But the most high profile opposition, to Beccles Free School, included the Tory Council Leader and the Tory MP. And Bedford, where the opening of Bedford Free School was delayed because of planning permission problems, has a council with no overall control and a directly-elected Lib Dem Mayor.
What of Mr Gove’s other claim that free schools had to open in second- or third-rate buildings because of LA shenanigans? This has been hotly denied by his department
“No free schools have opened in inadequate buildings. …. A full options appraisal is carried out to ensure that schools are in a suitable building to meet their needs. Some schools may open in a building that is not initially their first or second choice, because of factors such as availability, suitability, or value for money.”
It would appear, then, that it’s nothing to do with the attitude of LAs when any of these first-wave free schools didn’t get their first or second choice of building. It’s to do with a lack of suitable sites. But the Government's tried to solve this by relaxing planning permission rules
to allow free schools to open in buildings without having to apply for change-of-use. LAs will only be able to assess traffic and noise. This "streamlining" of the planning process waters down local decision making and denies locals the chance to comment.
Mr Gove has again been guilty of publishing misleading information. No free school, first- or second-wave, has opened in substandard buildings according to the DfE. No LA obstructed the establishment of a first-wave free school. Only one LA opposed a free school for the good reason that the places weren't needed. The majority of LAs supported the establishment of the first-wave free schools. And Labour councils were no less likely to support first-wave free schools than ones run by Tories, Lib-Dems or no overall control.
Unless, of course, the information given in the Impact Assessments about LA support is incorrect. If so, then Mr Gove should let us know.
Information re LA support or otherwise came from each school’s Impact Assessment unless otherwise stated. The party in control in 2010 is given in brackets (source Wikipedia, please let me know if I’m wrong).
Kings Science Academy
. Bradford LA (no overall control) supported the creation of a 500 place 11-16 school although strongly opposed the creation of an all-through school.
Eden Primary School
. The proposers built good relations with Haringey (Labour).
The Free School, Norwich
. Norwich LA (no overall control until 2012 ) said the ‘real concern was over the pattern of admissions and the way it might have an adverse effect on existing schools.’
Nishkam Free School
: Birmingham LA (no overall control) expressed support for the school.
St Luke’s CofE school
: Camden (Labour) felt the school would address a shortage in primary places. It offered the school access to services and advice.
Canary Wharf College
: Tower Hamlets (Labour) agreed there was a need for primary places. But the LA had reservations including concerns about the temporary nature of the site and the inability of the school to prepare hot meals. The LA suggested the school buy in meals from the LA.
Krishna Avanti School: relations with Leicester LA (Labour) are good (Ofsted 2013)
Stour Valley Community School
: Suffolk County Council (Conservative) thought Stour Valley could be a popular and successful school although it was concerned about its effect on the LAs reorganisation plans.
All Saints’ Junior school
: Reading LA (Labour) supported the establishment of the school.
: Westminster City Council (Conservative) was strongly supportive of the scheme.
: Hammersmith and Fulham (Conservative) were strongly supportive.
Discovery New School
: West Sussex County Council (Conservative) supported the setting up of the school.
E-Act Aldborough Free School
: Redbridge (n overall control) was supportive.
Etz Chaim Jewish Primary School
: Barnet (Conservative) officers and councillors were supportive.
West London Free School
: Hammersmith and Fulham (Conservative) supported the establishment of the school.
Langley Hall Primary Academy
: The Director of Children’s Services in Slough Borough Council (Labour) expressed concern about the disruption to education and “unbalancing of schools” because some pupils would be drawn from other schools. However, she didn’t think any other school would become unviable.
Rainbow Primary School
: Bradford (no overall control) did not think the extra places were required
Woodpecker Hall Primary Academy
: Enfield (Labour) expressed support
Bristol Free School: Bristol City Council (Lib Dem until 2010, then hung) gave agreement in principle for the establishment of the school. The Lib-Dem Council Leaders and another Lib-Dem Councillor expressed disappointment that Bristol Free School would offer places to Oasis School Westbury Senior Phase pupils after the school said it would. (Wikipedia
UPDATE 20 August 2013
The sentence "Only one, Bradford (no overall control), said a proposed primary free school was not needed" has been changed to read, "Only one, Bradford (no overall control), opposed a proposed primary free school on the grounds that it was not needed." I missed "opposed" from the original sentence.