The claim
“For too long in our country, exercising choice to escape poor schools has been available to the richest, who could just opt out and go private, or to the middle classes who could move house to a better area, but the poorest have had to take what they’re given. Not any more.”
Prime Minister David Cameron, January 29, 2011

Cathy Newman checks it out

Last year’s Conservative manifesto pledged nothing short of a “schools revolution”.

There would be, the party promised, a “new generation of good small schools” modelled on Sweden’s “Free Schools”.

Once in government, the education secretary Michael Gove, said he’d received more than 700 expressions of interest from parents, teachers and charities interested in setting up the new institutions.

Now, with just weeks to go before the end of the school year, FactCheck is taking stock.

How many of England’s new Free Schools will be up and running by September, and is this the educational revolution we were promised? (For Cathy’s full programme report, click here)

The analysis

England’s school system is facing a chronic shortage of 320,000 places by 2014.

Education Secretary Michael Gove hopes to help address this by encouraging Free Schools set up by teams of teachers, parents, charities, businesses, trusts, religious or voluntary groups.

The new Free Schools are publicly funded but independent of local authorities. They will not have to hire teachers with the QTS (qualified teacher status) accreditation they normally have to get in the state sector.  And while they have to teach certain subjects,  they will not have to follow the National Curriculum.

Mr Gove said last year he’d received more than 700 “expressions of interest”.   But in the end, the Department for Education (DfE) received less than half that number of firm proposals.  And of the 323 that applied, the government is considering 32 applications and currently 24 are through to the final stages.

Now FactCheck can reveal that just eight are certain to open in September. A further 16 are still hoping they might be ready for the Autumn term and are waiting for their funding agreements to be signed off.  Officials at the DfE told us at least a dozen would end up opening altogether.

Free Schools with funding agreement approved:

Batley Grammar School, Kirklees

Nishkam Free School, Birmingham

Bradford Science Academy, Bradford

St Luke’s C of E Primary School, Camden

Eden Primary School, Haringey

Stour Valley Community School, Suffolk

Free School Norwich, Norfolk

West London Free School, Hammersmith and Fulham


Free Schools awaiting funding agreement approval:

All Saints Junior School, Reading

Krishna-Avanti Primary School, Leicester City

ARK Atwood, Westminster

Langley Hall Primary Academy, Slough

ARK Conway, Hammersmith and Fulham

Moorlands School, Luton

Canary Wharf College, Tower Hamlets

Rainbow Free School, Bradford

Discovery New School, West Sussex

Sandbach School, Cheshire East

E-ACT Redbridge Primary School, Redbridge

The Priors Free School, Warwickshire

Etz Chaim Jewish Primary School, Barnet

Woodpecker Hall Primary Academy, Enfield


Deprivation, diversity and indepedent schools

The numbers are small, but expectations are high.  Mr Gove has echoed the Prime Minister’s claim that Free Schools would benefit the worse-off, promising that “by allowing new schools we will give all children access to the kind of education only the rich can afford”.

FactCheck found however that of the 24 schools in the pipeline to open this year, nine rank in the top 50 per cent better-off areas in England.

Four of these are existing independent schools applying for state funding under the Free School status. That suggests many of the children who will benefit from the new schools enjoy fairly comfortable backgrounds.

Two of the independent schools, the specialist arts college Sandbach and the Maharishi primary school, are located in the top 20 per cent of England’s better-off areas.

Mark Griffin, a parent at the £9,000-a-year Batley Grammar School, said grandparents often helped pay the fees, so he was delighted his children would, from September, be attending a Free School. He told FactCheck it was like “winning the lottery”.

Mr Griffin said: “Like the country as a whole, we’ve gone through a challenging period over the past two and a half years, and particularly for parents like myself who run small businesses and have gone through redundancies recently, so therefore, when we heard there was an inkling that the school might turn into a free school we saw it possibly as literally a free school and it felt like a lottery win.”

In fact, of all the 24 schools FactCheck found only two schools in the poorest 10 per cent of England’s local authorities: Nishkam Free School and Art Atwood – both primary schools that together would offer 160 places in their first year of opening.

The latter, a sister school to the Hindu Krishna-Avanti London, is one of seven religious Free Schools hoping to open this year – including the first publicly funded Sikh school in England.

The DfE points out that the majority of the 24 schools are located in the most deprived 50 per cent of the country, adding that if schools are in less deprived areas it is usually because there is a shortage of places.

Such shortages are the reason behind a number of Free Schools that are extensions of existing schools – such as Woodpecker Hall and the Krishna-Avanti.

(Continued analysis and verdict below the graphic)

Free Schools hoping to open in September 2011

Buildings blocked

Why are there not more Free Schools, fulfilling the Prime Minister’s original aim? The truth is, setting up a school from scratch is no mean feat.

Two parents who have campaigned for a school in Kirklees, Yorkshire, told FactCheck they never realised it would be so hard.

Lesley Surman and Lisa Holmes wanted to open their Free School next year, but they’ve so far failed to persuade the council to give them the land.

Lisa Holmes, parent, local Conservative concillor and member BBG Academy Trust, said: “I think to set up a school from scratch, which is in part really what we’re doing, I think just as parents without particular expertise in the free school movement, I think would be incredibly difficult.

“Sadly I don’t think it’s quite as easy as we were led to believe in the beginning. But it’s an evolving process and I think maybe even the powers that be at the time didn’t realise it was going to take this route but I think it would be very difficult on your own.”

Sarah Counter, the principal of Free School Canary Wharf College, had a similar story. She’s been working on her plans full time since last September – and she has eight years experience as a head teacher under her belt.

The biggest problem, she said, is the red tape choking the allocation of school buildings. It’s the main reason why existing schools have the upper hand, and some start-ups lose out.

Ms Counter took months to find a suitable building in Canary Wharf, while schools in Bristol, Westminster and Barnet plan to open in temporary accommodation, and others are still searching. One in Kingston has admitted defeat delaying the grand opening until 2012. The Kirklees school will now open in 2013.

Free schools have to apply for planning permission to use buildings as schools – a laborious process which relies on the goodwill of the Local Authorities. There was a government consultation before Christmas on how to make it easier to convert buildings for education use, and we’re told the response is due “imminently”.

Rachel Wolf, founder of the New Schools Network, told FactCheck: “It’s the one piece of the jigsaw that the government has to sort out. And it’s the reason schools are being opened in less deprived areas – it’s not as easy to find buildings in inner city areas.”

Return on investment?

So is it all going to be worth it?

“It’s so much hard work for the Department for Education because most groups don’t have any experience at all”,  Ms Counter told us.

There are almost 100 civil servants beavering away on the Free Schools plan. Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham points out that with no more than 3,000 children set to attend a free school in the first year, that’s one civil servant for every 30 kids. “Not a great return on investment”, Mr Burnham said.

The government has allocated £50m for the Free Schools’ first year in capital funding, siphoned off from the Harnessing Technology Grant.

There are fears that neighbouring state schools will see pupils and funding plundered by Free Schools. That’s because the money follows the pupil, so if a struggling state school loses students it will also lose cash.

So what Alastair Campbell used to call the “bog-standard comprehensive” might end up losing its best pupils to the Free School down the road.

Cathy Newman’s verdict

With just eight Free Schools certain to open in September, the schools revolution has yet to take hold.

But a manifesto is for a whole parliament, and this is only the Government’s first year. It’s also worth pointing out that in Labour’s 13 years in power, a paltry one parent-run school opened its doors.

Publicly, ministers insist they’re not disappointed by the number. Nevertheless privately, some in Government admit they are a little embarrassed that independent schools and parents in better-off areas are in the vanguard.

No wonder the education department would rather focus on its track record so far on Academies. These schools – started under Labour but embraced with aplomb by Mr Gove – are free from local authority control.

They get more money, so they can, they have more freedom to hire better teachers, and they also set their own curriculum.

Comprehensives are becoming academies at the rate of two every school day. There are now 704 open in England, compared to 203 at the time of the election. That just might end up being revolutionary.

The analysis by Emma Thelwell