The UK government has announced the latest group of Free Schools approved to open in England from September 2013. 102 school projects have been ‘rubber stamped’ by the Department for Education (DfE) to open as Free Schools, schools which are set-up and run by teachers, parents and local interest groups, charities and businesses, largely responding to need in areas with a shortage of good school provision.
During a visit to Woodpecker Hall Primary Academy in north London, a Free School which opened last year, Prime Minister David Cameron said, “The message from the first two years is clear and unambiguous. Free Schools work and parents and teachers want more of them.”
24 Free Schools opened in September 2011 and the next wave of new Free Schools will see a further 50 opening this September.
Mr Cameron heralded the new schools as a great success in his speech announcing the 102 new schools projects, “The Free Schools revolution was built on a simple idea. Open up our schools to new providers and use the competition that results to drive up standards across the system. We are backing the parents, charities and committed teachers who are trying to make things better and giving them the freedoms they need to transform our education system.”
The schools were a flagship policy for the conservative party in the run-up to the last general election, with the central aim of driving up standards by encouraging competition and supporting the creation of new schools in the areas in most desperate need of good school provision, urging parents and local groups to respond to need. They are funded by the government and, like academy schools, are given greater freedoms than local authority schools including the freedom to decide the length of the school day and term, the curriculum and how they pay their teachers and spend their budget.
However, the Free School programme has not been without its critics. Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, claims that, "Free schools, like academies, will offer less transparency and undermine community cohesion. They are not required to employ qualified teachers and are not accountable to democratically elected local authorities despite being funded by the tax payer."
Also, it became clear after a new Free School in Suffolk - Beccles Free School - received just 37 applications for its 162 places, that the new schools were not exclusively addressing the problem of shortage of school places. The DfE responded, "We expect pupil recruitment to increase steadily now parents have certainty that the school will open later this year. Standards in Suffolk have been below the national average for the last four years. The establishment of this Free School will drive up standards and provide greater opportunity and choice for parents and pupils."
The majority of the new schools are based in London and the south east of England, but there is a growing number in the North West, including two school groups in Manchester with plans to open a primary school in an area with an expected shortage of primary places.
The DfE has published research which, it claims, shows that between 2010 and 2011, results for pupils in sponsored academies (schools with a similar set-up to Free Schools) improved at a faster rate than in other state-funded schools and at a faster rate than in a group of similar schools.