Education Leaders’ Guide to… Free Schools
What is a Free School?
In the most basic terms, it is a school that has similar freedoms to those of an academy. It will have been set up from scratch, because there was enough evidence of parental demand for it. The notion of Free Schools was an important part of the Conservative Education manifesto and owes a great deal to a similar scheme in Sweden as well as American Charter schools.
Academy rules apply: Free Schools can vary the curriculum, staff terms and conditions, and opening hours. They are expected to give details of the educational aims and objectives for the school and may choose to use different teaching methods, which need to be specified in the original proposal to establish the school.
As well as parental demand, each school will need a “suitable proposer”. This could include charities, academy sponsors, universities, independent schools, community or faith groups, teachers, parents or businesses. Although much of the publicity has been about dedicated groups of parents battling to set up their own school, it now appears that they are just one of the various people or organisations who could apply to do so. Indeed, it appears that there are groups of teachers who are looking to establish Free Schools. But there does have to be evidence of lots of parental demand for a new school, and it can only happen in England.
Why do I need to know about them?
It’s possible that there may be one coming to a disused library or bank near you. This of course means that organisers seeking staff a principal for their new primary or secondary, will be advertising in your area. The Department for Education hopes the first schools will open in September 2011, and has authorised an organisation called the New Schools Network to advise parent groups on the process.
Parents seeking support for their new school may also be looking to get such support from educationalists in the area. The New Schools Network First Steps document says: “Are there teachers who would be interested in working in or helping to set up a new school? Talk to them – if you are in a city contact Teach First or Teaching Leaders. Talk to the local independent and state schools.”
Doesn’t there need to be a change in the law for this?
Apparently only planning law needs to be amended: It is anticipated that the new Academies Bill will cover anything else. The Government is planning to allow a wider range of existing buildings to be used as schools without requiring “change of use” consent. The Government is also planning to update planning guidelines before the summer holiday so that there is a “presumption in favour” of setting up new schools. The DfE also wants to protect existing disused school sites in case they can be brought back into use in this way.
Is there likely to be much demand?
More than 700 groups had registered an interest before Mr Gove officially launched the policy. More than half of these groups are led by teachers.
There is also opposition to the idea, with some teacher unions, the anti-academies alliance and Ed Balls, former Secretary of State for education, leading the charge.
Could my school become a Free School?
Not if it is currently within the state sector, though you could apply to become an academy, which has the same freedoms. Maintained schools will not be able to become Free Schools - these will normally be brand new schools set up in areas where there is a demand. However, independent schools can apply to become Free Schools. Effectively a Free School will operate in the same way as an academy. Free Schools will not be selective schools, so if an independent school becomes a Free School it will not be allowed to keep any existing academic selection process.
What about admissions?
Free Schools will be bound by the admissions code and existing regulations on SEN and exclusions. This includes “hard to place” children. The DfE website says: “For children with a SEN statement, Free Schools must consent to being named in a statement in almost all circumstances.
“We want all schools to work with parents to meet the needs of children with SEN. Current academies do this and we would expect new Free Schools to do so as well.”
Although faith groups are one of those specifically mentioned as possible sponsors to set up a Free School, they won’t be able to prioritise admissions by faith criteria, and neither would independent schools which became Free Schools. The guidance suggests that in these cases the school or organisation might want to consider taking the “established route to voluntary-aided status”.
How much money will they get?
Their budget will be comparable to other state schools. DfE guidance says this would include pupil premium money, a clear hint that it does not intend Free Schools to be a creation of the leafy suburbs. Capital funding needs will be considered on a case by case basis. Initially there is only an identified budget of £50m for the whole project.
How are they created?
There are four simple stages according to the DfE:
contact the NSN for advice and information;
submit an outline proposal to the DfE, which is checked and conditionally approved by the Secretary of State;
provide a full business case and plan, which again must be approved by the Secretary of State;
sign the contract with the Secretary of State to release initial funding, establish the school, run admissions for first cohort of pupils.
All proposals will be published on the DfE website. They stress that many checks will be made as to the suitability of those involved as well as the necessity for the school.
Who can set them up?
The DfE guidance says that parental demand is an essential part of the process. It does not require sponsors to be an existing education provider, but it expects them to be working with providers who have expertise in education. It makes it clear that it is happy for schools to be run as part of a chain.
The New Schools Network First Steps document says: “Please note that, under current legislation and guidance, an official application for a school is likely to be accepted only with the official help of organisations and individuals with an education track record. If you are interested, we will help you link with those groups.”
A free school coming to a town near you?
So can they make a profit?
No. The DfE says they are to be established on a non-profitmaking basis. “All income and assets of the charitable trust must be spent and used for the charitable purpose of the trust, which will run the school, i.e. to advance education for the public benefit.
“However, like all state schools, the trust will be able to subcontract elements of the running and management of the school to other organisations, including private companies. The trust will remain accountable for the performance of the school and for the effective and proper use of public funding.”
Where is the money coming from?
So far the DfE has set aside £50m for the scheme, appropriated from the Harnessing Technology budget. Commentators such as Professor Alan Smithers have said this will not go far, even though it will be cheaper to use existing buildings than create new ones.
A story in the Daily Telegraph said: “A spokesman for the Department for Education (DfE) said sufficient funding would be allocated after the government spending review this autumn and in next year's budget, once it becomes clear how many schools are set to open in 2011.
But the DfE accepted that if the demand outstripped the money available, some suitable candidate schools may have to be put on hold while those in areas of most urgent need are prioritised.
The DfE says money will be found during the strategic spending review.
What are Free Schools modelled on?
Michael Gove has repeatedly referred to the Swedish Free Schools as a model. He has also talked about a particular type of charter school in the US, run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, which aims to get all pupils into college. Not all commentators share Mr Gove’s views on the success of these methods. A look at available research on the Swedish experience for Channel 4 news could neither support nor refute Mr Gove’s claims of improved performance.
It’s worth pointing out that when Sweden created Free Schools in 1992 (through a voucher system, which was itself a popular idea in Conservative circles at around this time, leading to nursery vouchers which were the starting point for free pre-school education) – it had a very different education system to that in England. Almost all Swedish schools were state schools.
What are they supposed to do?
This is what Michael Gove says: “Hundreds of groups, from teachers themselves to charities such as the Sutton Trust, have expressed an interest in starting great new schools. Just like the successful charter schools in the US, supported across the political spectrum, these schools will have the freedom to innovate and respond directly to parents’ needs. The new Free Schools will also be incentivised to concentrate on the poorest children by the introduction of this Government’s Pupil Premium which will see schools receiving extra funds for educating children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In this country, too often the poorest children are left with the worst education while richer families can buy their way to quality education via private schools or expensive houses. By allowing new schools we will give all children access to the kind of education only the rich can afford – small schools with small class sizes, great teaching and strong discipline.”
However, there is much shouting about whether such schools do make a difference for pupils, with evidence supporting both the pros and the antis. See the Further Reading selection for more detail. It has also been pointed out that small schools and small classes would be very expensive.
What about local authorities?
The DfE is encouraging anyone who wants to set up a Free School to talk to the LA, and is stressing their continuing role. Michael Gove has written a letter to Directors of Children’s Services explaining that he will consult them about the local circumstances before making a final decision on whether to agree to any Free School proposed in their area. He adds: “We are committed to working with you to ensure local government continues to play a full strategic role in securing the improvements we all want to see. Strong local authorities are central to our plans to improve education and I hope you will continue to play the vital role of championing parents and pupils as we work in partnership to drive up standards in all schools.”
What is the New Schools Network? Why are they involved?
The NSN, which will be paid up to £500,000 for its work until July 31 2011, was set up by Rachel Wolf, a former education adviser to the Conservative Party. She previously worked for Boris Johnson and at the Institute of Education. The DfE says the NSN has “expertise” in this area which the department itself does not currently possess, and is hiring it to “kick-start” the scheme.
Trustees include Sir Geoffrey Owen, a former editor of the Financial Times, Sir Bruce Liddington, the former schools commissioner for England who is now the Director General of Academy sponsors E-ACT. Advisers include Professor Julian Le Grand and Baroness Sally Morgan, who also both advised Tony Blair in government.
Susan Young is an Education Journalist
Page Published: 22/06/2010