How to get 500 free schools PDQ. Easy, just change the rules.

Fiona Millar's picture
The Conservatives went into the General Election promising to deliver 500 new free schools in the course of this Parliament. It seemed an ambitious target at a time of austerity when the creation of new schools (often in areas of surplus provision) was being questioned.

But new guidance slipped out at the start of the summer holidays makes it clear just how easy this particular policy objective will be.

Followers of the free school project from its early days will remember that the idea was for parents and teachers to band together and start their own schools where they weren’t satisfied with existing local provision.

Bids were put in to the Department for Education, which then commissioned the school if the bid was good enough, although in practice over the last Parliament many new free schools were actually established by existing academy providers and chains.

The other route for creating new schools has been via the local authority. If councils needed to create new places to meet basic need, they could hold a (sort of) competition between new providers to start a new school in a place of the LA's choosing.

I say “sort of” competition because following the 2011 Education Act any new school proposed by a local authority to meet basic need had to be an academy or free school, making it almost impossible to get a new maintained (non academy) school built.

In practice this meant that local authorities have tended to set up new academy schools to meet basic need. But now the guidance from government has changed. Any new school established via this local authority route will be automatically classified as a “free school” even if in legal terms it is still an academy.

As the guidance says:” This reflects the fact that “free school” is the department’s policy term for a new provision academy. “Academy” is a legal term for state-funded schools that are independent of LA control and receive their funding directly from the government.”

The guidance goes on to say that schools established through this process are not required to use the term “free school” in their name. But that doesn’t really matter because when it comes to totting up the number of free schools created in the next few years every new school established via the LA route (and there will be many due to the population bulge) will help that total to swell.

Except of course that these schools are not free to the local authority. As the guidance also makes clear local councils will have to provide the site and meet all the capital costs. Nor will local people have a “free” choice about who runs the schools their children go to. The Secretary of State and her regional commissioner sidekicks will be the final decision makers in a process that continues the no choice, “we know best”, centralised decision making that increasingly characterises every aspect of this government’s education policy.

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