Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT said: “The original purpose of the free school project was to offer the opportunity for different community groups to set up schools. In the beginning we saw this happening, but many of these schools have been absorbed into larger trusts and new free schools are now overwhelmingly set up by MATs, so it would be wrong to claim that free schools are responsible for any additional diversity in the system.
“Whilst free schools are not bound by the national curriculum, they are held to account in exactly the same ways as more established schools making it highly unlikely that they will be able to offer the innovation that was initially proposed. And of course, no school is immune to the funding crisis. In the end, underfunding limits the ambitions of all schools. Right now schools are making drastic cuts to activities, subjects and staffing levels because their budgets are at breaking point.
“What this report proves is that opening a new school is a difficult business, requiring lots of capacity from the proposer group. The fact that free schools now tend to be set up by MATs shows that tried and tested methods and a strong support network are a necessity, which begs the question why Local Authorities, who are able to offer this, are barred from opening new schools themselves.
“It’s well known that the pupil population is rising. The government’s own figures show that an extra 654,000 school places will be needed in England by 2026, to meet a nine per cent rise in pupil population. The free school programme is an incredibly inefficient way of attempting to meet this need. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have a particular need to get into a good school that is near to their home. Whilst many individual free schools have undoubtedly met a need for places in their area, regrettably, the free school programme as a whole just hasn’t had a big enough positive impact for those pupils.
“Free schools, when open, operate as their own admissions authority, so there will be many different admissions criteria for parents to navigate. This is needlessly confusing and does not make for a joined up system that truly has children’s best interests at heart. There’s no real choice for parents when the schools nearest to them are competing with each other by offering different admissions options. NAHT would like to see overall responsibility for admissions returned to the local authority, with appropriate powers to make sure that it is easy for parents to find the appropriate school places for their children.
“At our annual conference last month, the secretary of state promised to clarify the accountability regime, which includes Ofsted and Regional Schools Commissioners. It is right that only Ofsted should have the mandate to inspect schools. And RSCs should no longer have the aim of converting schools to academy status. NAHT will be working with the government over the coming months to make sure that the confusion and inefficiency schools and parents have to cope with comes to a swift end.”
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