Eighteen new free schools are announced by the government as it strives to meet a key election pledge to open 500 new premises.
Free schools, set up by parents, charities and other organisations, are controversial: while the Conservatives argue that they create more choice and improve standards, critics say they lead to scarce resources being concentrated on a small number of institutions at the expense of the rest of the education system.
Prime Minister David Cameron said: “The aim of this policy is crystal clear – to increase the number of good and outstanding school places so that more parents have the security of knowing their child is getting a great education.”
New projects include a school for children who have fallen out of mainstream education in Solihull, a college of performing arts in Leeds, and a secondary in south London dedicated to the ancient Greek “trivium” of logic, grammar and rhetoric.
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said the government had a “strong pipeline” of applications for free schools and she was confident it would reach the 500 figure over five years.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there was “a very clear vetting process” in setting up a free school, adding that these premises were inspected by Ofsted before they opened and a year later. with the government intervening if problems were found.
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers said the government’s announcement was “high on rhetoric and low on evidence”, saying an “effective, democratic, locally-developed strategy for school place planning” was needed to help tackle the desperate need for school places in many areas.
A key part of the Conservatives’ 2010 election manifesto, they are state schools set up by parents, teachers, charities, trusts and voluntary groups that operate like academies.
They are free from local council control, receive funding direct from Whitehall and have freedom over areas such as the curriculum and staff pay.
Some 252 free schools are currently operating, with a further 52 scheduled to open their doors to pupils this term. This will bring the total number of free school places created since 2010 to more than 236,000.
The 18 new free schools just given the go-ahead, which include a number set up by teachers themselves, will create a further 9,000 school places, and another 98 new schools are in the pipeline.
Of the 118 mainstream free schools inspected by Ofsted, as of 31 July this year, 25 per cent were judged outstanding, 52 per cent good, 18 per cent required improvement, and 5 per cent were inadequate.
Across England, figures for all state schools (21,175), were: 20 per cent outstanding, 64 per cent good, 14 per cent required improvement, and 2 per cent were inadequate.
Supporters of the free school scheme argue that it gives families more choice, especially if they are unhappy with the schools in their area, and that competition from creating more schools drives up the standards.
Opponents say free schools are more likely to be set up in middle-class areas than disadvantaged ones, and are less likely to benefit poor children.
There have been concerns, particularly from teaching unions, that the programme paves the way for schools to be run for profit, and that these schools are free to hire unqualified teachers.