Education: Fresh blood

by
07 February 2014

THE NOTION of free schools was introduced by the new Coalition Government in 2010, with the intention of bringing fresh blood into the system.

Although the Government had cunningly blocked the route to real cranks, many considered that the idea would appeal mainly to educational dissidents: those with "views" on schooling that didn't quite chime with the mainstream, or those who wanted to provide for children with particular talents (state-funded choir schools, for example).

The thinking was that free schools wouldn't amount to more than a scattering of exceptional enterprises across the country. Few thought that within three years the designation would include several large comprehensives, and have become an important way of meeting the huge growth in the numbers of school-age children.

The 2011 Education Act subtly changed the part played by free schools, making them, in effect, the preferred way of school provision. When a new school is needed, there has to be a competition for an academy/free school. Only if this route fails can a local authority launch a competition for a new maintained school, which could be a voluntary school.

According to the DfE, 174 free schools are already open, and 115 more are in the pipeline, with several C of E designations in both categories. Church educationists, however, have responded to this situation with caution. Even the most pragmatic DDEs - "It's the only way to get capital," remarked one - accept that pitfalls await the unwary.

The Lichfield DDE, Colin Hopkins, who, as secretary to the Dearing commission was closely involved with the expansion of the C of E secondary sector after 2001, still wonders whether some free schools have a long-term future. Promoters may want to withdraw when the going gets tough, or, in the case of parent-led initiatives, when their own children move on, he suggests.

The most viable, he thinks, are those free schools developed to meet a basic need for places. "When these are church schools, robust proposals, allied to ongoing diocesan support, are essential, because it is the diocese that will provide the long-term structure." Even then there is a reputational risk for dioceses in partnership with other promoters, who need to be chosen with the utmost care, he says.

The head of schools policy for the C of E, the Revd Nigel Genders, said: "We're willing to explore all ways of helping to meet the places crisis, but dioceses that get involved with free schools need to ensure the appointment of alert, supportive governors and well qualified staff, and insist that church free schools receive all the monitoring and inspections from which all our schools benefit."

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