OBSTACLES TO FREE SCHOOLS EXPANSION
Buildings a big problem but new proposals might help
The Think Tank Policy Exchange published a report in 2010 ‘ Blocking the Best Obstacles to new, independent state schools ,co -authored by Rachel Wolf.
This report accurately examines the changes required to make an expanded programme of genuinely independent state schools a reality. The ﬁrst part examines the barriers which prevent new providers entering the system, including a ponderous approval process and overly restrictive planning and building procedures. The second part looks at restrictions on academy independence which curb innovation, including bureaucratic and poorly-focused accountability mechanisms and interference by central and local government. The third part looks at interventions in cases of school failure.
There are two major constraints to the expansion of the Free schools initiative. First, a shortage of capital. Second, a shortage of appropriate buildings for these new schools. Some parents and charities looking to set up free schools have long complained that suitable buildings are proving to be scarce, raising fears that Michael Gove’s revolution may lose more momentum. (For example Katherine Birbalsinghs Free school bid in south London failed to find a suitable property and was delayed for a year). But the other side of this coin is restrictive building regulations and planning laws that make setting up a new school something of a bureaucratic nightmare. This report found that many of the building requirements which apply to schools are an unnecessary block on innovation and should be lifted from all schools. However, the authors said there is a key difference between the expectations of schools which children have to attend and the expectations of schools where parents make an active choice. In the former case, some basic minimum standards need to be mandated because parents cannot alter what is happening in any other way. In the latter case, if parents are happy with the conditions of a building (beyond basic health and safety) then that should be sufﬁcient. Schools which replace existing supply should be free from space and design regulations, but should still meet minimum requirements on acoustics, ventilation and lighting, the report concluded.
Eric Pickles,the Communities and Local Government Secretary has just announced (25 January 2013 ) that Free schools will be able to open in offices, hotels and warehouses without planning permission that will allow proposed free schools to speed through red tape.This will include rewriting planning laws to allow schools to open before they have received council permission to occupy their new buildings. They will have 12 months’ grace before requiring change-of-use approval.
Ministers argue that final planning permission is almost always granted but that too many would-be free schools — the Government’s signature education reform — are being snarled up in the lengthy application process. Mr Pickles will also loosen the rules on the type of building that free schools can convert, to include office buildings, hotels, theatres, hostels, shops and warehouses.
One issue, though, that might remain an obstacle is that Councils can object to a new school on the grounds of the effect it will have on local traffic. This is a sensible caveat but could be used by Councils opposed to Free schools as a blocking measure.
The process of finding a site for a Free School has already, according to the government, been sped up by the drive to cut red tape in the planning system. The following improvements are already in place:
Appeals from schools are treated as a priority.
National planning guidance has been slashed from thousands of pages to just 47.
Councils must give priority to the need for new school developments when considering planning applications.
These earlier measures were supposed to free up the process of finding suitable property, but clearly havent had the desired effect, otherwise these new measures would not have been necessary.
The Secretary of State said in a statement (interalia) on 28 January:
It is my intention to include within the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 (as amended):
‘a permitted development right allow for the temporary change of use to a new state-funded school from any other use class along with minor associated physical development. This will be for a single year which would cover the first academic year. It will provide certainty that a school opening will not be delayed by an outstanding planning application, but will not replace the need to secure planning permission for the use beyond that first year; and a permitted development right to allow change of use to a new state-funded school from offices (B1); hotels (C1); residential institutions (C2); secure residential institutions (C2A); and assembly and leisure (D2). Any subsequent change from a new state-funded school to other uses in non residential institution class (D1) will not be permitted. These changes will be subject to a prior approval process to mitigate any adverse transport and noise impacts.’
Separately a new estate agency-style website listing surplus Government properties, has been set up to make it easier for people who want to set up a Free School to search for and find sites. It launched today and shows more than 600 properties to rent and more than 140 to buy. The list will be updated as more properties become available or are claimed.