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Funding questions over free schools scheme

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 18 June 2010

Education secretary Michael Gove has set out how groups can apply to set up a "free school" in England, but Channel 4 News understands funding for them has been put at risk after the Treasury raised concerns about financing them with cuts from a £55bn school rebuilding programme.

Cameron's coalition government sets out the Free Schools programme today (Image: Getty)

A confidential document from the Department for Education, seen by Channel 4 News, revealed "difficulties" with the government's plan to set up the first Swedish-style free schools using money from the Building Schools for the Future programme.

The document suggested the Treasury was "unlikely to agree" such a plan, which would present an "immediate challenge" to find the money needed to set up the first free schools this year.

Instead officials proposed raiding the budget for free school meals - intended for the poorest pupils.

Earlier this month an £85m scheme to extend free school meals to half a million children from poor working families was scrapped. Michael Gove had pledged any savings in the department would be re-invested in "measures that most directly affect attainment for the poorest pupils".

When Channel 4 News asked the education department about the document, officials initially denied its existence. They later said the department had ruled out using the meals money for the new schools.

Instead, the government is using £50m from a £200m technology fund to help pay for set-up costs of schools this year.

More Channel 4 News coverage of 'free schools':
- FactCheck: Free schools funding u-turn
- FactCheck: Do Swedish free schools mean higher standards?
- Gove's academy plans prompt doubts and fears
- Coalition government: education a top priority

Ed Balls, the former education secretary and Labour leadership candidate, told Channel 4 News of his "shock" that officials had considered taking money from the school meals budget.

"I'm frankly shocked . . . I've been warning for months that there was no new money to pay for the free schools, that it was going to be unfair the way this was done," he said. 

"It's not only going to a two-tier system, it's going to be paid for by the poorest children.It's deeply, deeply unfair what this Conservative-Liberal government are doing . . . It tells you everything you need to know about the values of this new Conservative-Liberal coalition."

Political correspondent Cathy Newman writes:
Michael Gove wouldn't be drawn on how much the new free schools would cost. The government has set aside a £50m fund to kick-start the schools, but critics question whether this is enough money.

Each new academy school costs around £25m, and while many of the free schools will be smaller and therefore cheaper, money will still be needed to buy or convert buildings, and hire teachers.

Mr Gove insisted people setting up the schools would be able to save money because he would scrap scores of planning regulations. Such rules have, he claimed, pushed up building costs.

American model
The free schools scheme, which is a key Conservative policy, is modelled on similar programmes in the US and Sweden.

Education Secretary Michael Gove wants the first school to open in a little over year, by September 2011.

He told Channel 4 News: "I believe that we need to harness the idealism of teachers in the state system who would like to set up new schools.

"We've seen in Sweden and in America how some of the most impressive people in the teaching profession, when they've been given the chance to set up their own schools, have been able to do amazing things."

The scheme gets underway today, amid warnings from the National Union of Teachers (NUT) that the policy will throw the local education systems into "chaos".

"We're allocating £50m of capital over the next year, up to April of next year, in order to help get some projects off the ground," he told Channel 4 News. "And then in the future this will be, obviously, a priority for our capital expenditure.

"But as well as making it easier for people to access money, we're also going to make it easier for people to get what they want out of buildings. So we're going to strip away some of the planning and building regulations that currently stand in the way of people converting existing buildings into inspirational new schools.

"In the long term I also believe that there is a opportunity for us to save money because what we've seen in other countries is that when new schools have been established, some of the other costs which are associated with education have gone down. Teachers' salaries, however, have gone up."

Mr Gove also told Channel 4 News: "All the evidence is that there are lots of parent groups, and in particular lots of teachers who want to take advantage of this policy."

Earlier Mr Gove said that free schools would be subject to rigorous inspections by Ofsted, and insisted that the main motivation behind the programme was rooted in "closing the attainment gap".

What is a "free school"?
A free school is a new school that will have the same legal requirements as academy schools. They will be state funded but free from local authority control. They therefore have the ability to control things like pay and conditions to staff. They will not be profit making.

What is the difference between a free school and an academy school?
Essentially they have the same status, but a free school is a new school started from scratch by the group setting it up, whereas an academy is where a group moves in to take over an existing school.

Who can set up a free school?
Pretty much anyone who can provide evidence that there is demand for a new school. During the election, parents were the group mentioned most, but today Mr Gove indicated that there has been a lot of interest from teachers. Charities, universities, independent schools, community and faith groups and businesses are among the other likely groups. The plans only apply to schools in England. So far, just over 700 groups have expressed and interest in setting up a free school, according to the New Schools Network.

Who will regulate a free school?
Like any other school, free schools will be subject to Ofsted inspections. They will not be subject to local authority control, but the Department for Education does advise groups to discuss their plans with the local authority.

The schools choice facing parents

Mr Gove said yesterday that nearly 70 per cent of secondary schools rated outstanding by inspectors had already written to the Department for Education expressing interest in leaving local authority control.

Applicants are required to set out their proposals for the school's aims and objectives, prove there is evidence of demand, set out teaching methods, outline a curriculum, and identify possible school sites.

Those successful will also have to submit a business plan.

Maths teacher Mark Lehain told Channel 4 News why he wanted to set up his own school.

"Where I live in Bedford the LEA currently have plans to rationalise the number of schools we’ve got. Some of these schools could be up to 2,000 students in size," he said.

"I'm not saying that's a bad idea. What I'm thinking about offering with my colleagues is maybe a smaller school, maybe only a hundred students in a year group rather than 300-400, that  might suit certain parents' desires better".

But Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: "'Free schools' are an unnecessary and costly gamble in educating the country's children.

"The government is simply not acting responsibly by not making clear where the money will come from to fund the 'free schools' policy.

"Major education programmes have in the last few weeks been cut or frozen. The public would be right to be concerned that money saved from other education programmes will be used to fund the 'free schools' policy.

"The government's 'free schools' policy will inevitably cost more money to run. They will result in the over-provision of school places and increase the costs to the taxpayer at a time when the country can least afford it."

Free schools: a parent's perspective
Toby Young, the author of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, is part of a group of parents and teachers planning to set up a free school in west London.
The school would offer up to 750 children a classical liberal education without any "soft" - vocational - options. All pupils would do at least eight GCSEs including separate sciences, history, geography and Latin or a modern foreign language (or preferably both).

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