Schools minister Nick Gibb was clear: 86% of mainstream free schools approved since 2014 have been where school places were needed ‘and the remaining 14% in places where parents are unhappy with the quality of the school places’.
But information received under Freedom of Information said the 14% (41 schools) contained some schools where there is a projected need. This wasn’t apparent in the annual School Capacity Survey done before proposals were received. Estimated future need had been gleaned by contacting local authorities (LAs) ‘in some cases’.
It’s unclear why the DfE doesn’t contact all LAs about future need. This would help meet projected need in all areas not just those with a free school proposal. A better idea, however, would be to let LAs build their own schools to avoid a shortfall in places.
19 of the 41 schools Gibb claimed were needed because parents were unhappy with local schools were in fact schools allegedly established to meet future estimated needs. It’s misleading to say schools near these 19 are poor quality when ‘quality need’ wasn’t a ‘key’ factor.
22 approved free schools had quality need as a key factor. The DfE stressed it wasn’t the only issue but didn’t say what these other criteria were.
Setting up a free school in areas where there are already surplus places threatens the viability of existing schools.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that a free school will outshine existing schools. It is less expensive, and less risky, to help existing schools improve rather than throw money at new ones when there’s no need for more places.
But what of Gibb’s claim that parents were unhappy about local schools? It doesn’t follow that parents are unhappy because some local schools are less than good. For example, Finham Park 2, a Coventry free school where quality was a key factor, was controversial. Its Impact Assessment showed it would put two nearby secondary schools, including one that was good, at High risk.
If parents were unhappy, as Gibb claims, then it might be expected that parents would be the ones proposing a free school. But 20 of the 22 schools were proposed by existing schools or multi-academy trusts. One school, Luton Girls Academy, was backed by a teacher-led group. Its opening was quashed after schools minister Lord Nash said the proposal had ‘fallen short of rigorous criteria’.
Only one of the 22 where quality was a key factor was proposed by a parent/community group: City Gates School, a free school in Ilford which hasn’t opened.
It’s not known how many of Gibb’s approved free schools will actually open. But the DfE should heed the advice of the National Audit Office (February 2017) to balance ‘value gained’ from choice and competition with the drawback of creating surplus places including impact on ‘financial sustainability’ of nearby schools. In the headlong rush to create more free schools, the impact on other schools is too often ignored.
Sources used in writing this article which are not contained in links above:
Impact Assessments for free schools opened before September 2016 (IAs for September 2016 opening haven’t yet been published)
Free School Application Forms for Waves 6, 7 and 8. Forms for Waves 9-12 don't seem to be available (please let me know if you find them)
Academy Trust websites
Free School websites