Shortage of sites and capital slowing the initiative


The Government in 2011 approved 79 new, state-funded free schools to open from September 2012 onwards(these included UTCs). They were being set up by teachers, charities, universities, employers, and other groups in response to demand from local parents and industry.  Another 102 have been approved for opening from September next (2013) year.

However just 55 will actually open this  month .That is a pretty high attrition rate.  And how come so few?  The Financial Times suggested, in a  Leader, that the Free schools initiative is  now a damp squib given  how many schools open and shut every year.

We know that more than a dozen free schools due to open this week have been delayed or beset by planning problems. Finding appropriate sites and securing the necessary planning permission is a major issue blighting the Free schools programme. Bedford Free School has vowed to open  this week even though planning permission for its site has been rejected by the local council. Its appeal against the rejection of its application will be heard next month. Compass Free School, a secondary school, was approved to open this September in Southwark, South London, but has been delayed by a year. Doug Lewis, the chairman of the Compass Schools Trust, told the Times : “Finding a site is proving a real challenge and has already cost us — and our first intake of pupils — a year’s delay.” Katherine Birbalsingh   originally planned to open the Michaela community school, in Lambeth, south London, but then moved its proposed home to Tooting, in nearby Wandsworth, and had been due to open in September 2012. But both moves foundered due to a lack of premises.

According to the Times at  least one school has withdrawn its proposals and six others have been delayed by a year, all because of planning or site purchase problems. Another three have had their funding withdrawn by the Department for Education (DfE) while several others have scrapped their plans or been delayed for other reasons including recruitment problems. The problem is particularly acute in large cities. Of 17 schools due to open in London, at least ten are on temporary sites. Others are moving into temporary buildings on a permanent site, and building work will continue as teaching gets under way. Many will have little useable outside space but will travel to playing fields or leisure centres. Twenty-six of the 55  free schools expected to open across England will not be at their permanent location, and most of these will remain there for at least a year. At least four others will teach children in temporary accommodation on their permanent site.

Rachel Wolf, director of the New Schools Network, which advises applicants on behalf of the DfE, told the Times “Unquestionably, site is the biggest problem and the biggest potential road block to these free schools opening. The delays … are a symptom of the free school movement’s success. A process that might have worked for the first couple of dozen schools will not prove fit for purpose for the hundreds that are now coming forward.”

But there have been other shocks too that undermine confidence in the DFE approach to Free schools. Funding for One In A Million Free School in Bradford was withdrawn this  Monday at the eleventh hour  after its building was completed, teachers appointed and 30 children enrolled and over £200,000 of taxpayers money had been spent. Parents had less than a week to find their children places at other schools before the start of the school year. And yet  only  last month the DfE signed a funding agreement with the Beccles free school, which managed to attract just 37 applications for places, despite planning to open with 162 children. The application for the proposed  Phoenix School, in Manchester, staffed by Armed Forces veterans and backed by Lord Guthrie – was recently rejected by DfE which came as a complete surprise to the bidding team. Phoenix had been identified as one of the 16 strongest out of about 250 Free School applicants by the New Schools Network. It had 85% oversubscription of pupil numbers – yet the DfE claimed lack of community support. Other bidders have been left bemused having failed to get DFE approval.

DFE claims that it makes no excuses for its rigorous vetting system which means, inevitably, that some bids fail to make the grade.  But talk to people involved in bidding and looking at the various Free school forums on the internet ,they have a  very different view. One of their main complaints is how little support they get from the DFE during the bidding process, exacerbated by key officials being away at crucial times, often on holiday as a deadline looms.  But there is a strong suspicion too that the Free schools initiative is slowing down dramatically for two main reasons. A real shortage of capital and sites.  Free-school numbers are low because the government has decided that the DfE must pay for new buildings upfront itself, but has provided not nearly enough capital with which to buy them. The government  has also crucially   eschewed private sector involvement  from running such schools curtailing interest in the scheme, although, self-evidently, the sector  could bring their capital and  skills in   breathing  new life into the initiative.

There is additional trouble  looming as potential bidders will look at the current situation  and apparent inconsistencies and wonder whether it is worth all the effort and risk.  Make no mistake, its extremely  hard work to get a Free school project off the ground and often the individuals involved have to give their time free and dip into their own  pockets . Apart  from the logistical and administrative hassle  that you have to cope with, you  will also  probably  take some political flak along the way from those opposed to Free schools.  It could  soon become an issue of confidence. Certainly it is the case that there are less Free schools established or in the pipeline than Gove would have wished for at this stage in the cycle, possibly around 50% down on projections when the scheme was launched in 2010.

That is not to say that the initiative is not worthwhile. But some serious thinking needs to be done in DFE about how to get this  initiative back on track, and officials need to up their game.


Note -Liberal Democat  David Laws appointment, in the recent reshuffle, as schools minister will strengthen Goves team-he is a supporter  of Free schools .


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