FREE SCHOOLS – THE REVOLUTION STUTTERS

The number of new schools now likely to open their doors this September is around 10. Not a particularly impressive number, given that Primary schools are also part of the FS initiative.

It is already clear that the Government is shifting its main effort to expanding the Academies programme which has its own momentum. A momentum that is signally lacking, for now, at least, in the FS programme. The Independent has learnt that since the Free School programme was launched last year, just 40 out of 323 proposals have been accepted for consideration. Of those, just four have received a promise of Government funding. Another application has been withdrawn and most of the remaining 35 schools will not open until 2012. The remaining 283 have been turned down and the applicants told they must re-apply under stricter criteria. These are designed to show they are “fit and proper” people to run a school. The high failure rate is regarded by some as reflecting much needed rigour in the vetting process, identifying flawed bids early on, so saving time effort and resources.   However ,some close to the FS programme suggest that it has little to do with quality control and everything to do with money. Or lack of it.
There are two big interrelated problems facing Free schools and their supporters. Lack of money,and buildings. Of course there have been some dubious bids and bidders but can that seriously explain the punishingly high failure rate? And what effect will such a failure rate have on prospective bidders and confidence in this initiative,  more generally ,one wonders?
Advisers behind the scenes have been saying that you don’t really need much money to set up a new school. Taking a leaf out of the Charter School movement in New York, they point out that there is no reason why new schools need to own a building. They can rent. And some districts in New York provide incentives to do just this. There is the potential too to make clever use of other property, old office blocks, apartments and shops for instance, to set up a Free school. And, of course, where there are empty classrooms in existing schools, these too might be utilised. This ignores two important points. First just how appealing will it be for parents to send their child to a school in an old shop when set against all those shiny new neighbouring £20m Academies. Secondly, and of greater import, converting old buildings, and getting planning permission, into a school that is fit for purpose and safe is as much of a logistical challenge as it sounds and requires capital too. (interestingly the Guardian points out that a majority of Free schools are taking over listed buildings which is clearly potentially expensive) . It all looks quite attractive on paper but in practice, well, its not quite so easy. As Jonn Elledge of Education Investor has pointed out ‘Free school groups don’t have a credit history, so no one will lease them a building. (The government has said it’ll guarantee such leases; but it’s yet to put its money where its mouth is.) And, unsurprisingly, neither free schools nor existing comprehensives seem all that keen on shacking up together.’ The fact is most of the first tranche of new free schools look like they’re mostly going to be in buildings purchased for the purpose, using government money (which is as we know limited). It is still not clear how much money will be added to the initial pot for Free schools. The Partnerships for Schools quango, looks to have a new lease of life on the property front though. It had supported the recently abolished BSF schools building programme, and had looked to be on its way out as part of the government’s quango cull having been heavily criticised for presiding over its waste and profilgacy. It also caught the blame for embarrassing the Secretary of State when he issued a flawed list of school building projects that were being cancelled or put on ice. Now, however it seems to have found redemption and been given the job of finding buildings for these new schools. This Government like all before it talk tough on quangos but then keeps most of them in place. Its a painstaking task seeking the right place for a new school and the Partnership for Schools is hardly renowned for its speed of delivery. For a time the Government thought that the big Academy chains might move in and help but although they have the expertise and mostly a pretty sound track record they are short of capital and are heavily committed already to the Academies scheme. They would also encounter too the problem of a shortage of appropriate buildings. Yes, some are backing Free schools, but on a small scale. (There aren’t very many of them)

And the Government’s flirtation with the big chains, although making much sense in terms of seeking to secure efficient delivery, has sent out confusing signals to parents groups intending to set up schools. The original Free schools scheme came out of the Big Society mould. It was conceived to encourage and empower groups of local parents fed up with the choices being offered in local schooling to set up their own schools –essentially community driven and from the bottom up. But new regulations look to make it much harder for parents to do this (see above). Indeed some critics are now asking what the Free schools initiative is for, if its main raison d’ Etre appears to have been put on the backburner. Its future looks to be as a very junior sub set of the Academies scheme. But what some people forget is that the DFE is not awash with capital and this while obviously affecting the FS initiative it will also impact over the medium term on the Academies scheme too.

Looking to the private sector for support in terms of both expertise and investment could provide one way out but has been dismissed, it seems, by the government as too politically contentious. Indeed the private sector is generally fairly miffed that the Government is perceived to be cold shouldering them more generally in other public policy areas too. The Cabinet office, the Department taking a lead on public sector reforms and procurement, trips over itself in championing mutuals, co-ops, social enterprises and the third sector (look at its Business Plan) but barely mentions the private sector. Essential though the charities and the third sector are in public service delivery, it is surely bizarre that this Government appears to have turned its back on the private sector, at a time when public money is in short supply and those responsible for delivery are suffering significant cut backs. Joined up thinking it  certainly isn’t. Jonn Elledge editor of Education Investor wrote in the New Statesman (9 May): ‘The government wants three things: to create enough new schools to really shake up state education; to keep the profiteers out; and to keep the cost to the taxpayer down. But it can’t win on all three fronts. One of them is going to have to give. And right now, it looks like the revolution will be the one to get tossed aside.’ Possibly overstated-but there is no doubt that the Free schools initiative is facing significant short term challenges.

Note Katharine Barbalsingh has just formally launched a campaign in support of the setting up of a Free school in Lambeth, backed by Wellington College.

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