Prime Minister commits to opening 500 more free schools

Monday, March 9, 2015

A further 500 free schools would open in the next five years under a Conservative Government.

Minister David Cameron is today expected to announce plans to create an extra 270,000 school places in free schools by 2020 if the Tories win the general election in May.

It is thought he will make the announcement during a speech in London, in which he will reveal that the Government has approved 49 new free schools under Wave 8 of the programme.

The move brings the total number of free schools to more than 400, providing more than 230,000 school places.

The Prime Minister will say, 'Delivering the best schools and skills for young people is a crucial part of our long-term economic plan to secure a better future for Britain. Free schools set up by teachers, parents and community groups are not only outperforming other schools, but they are raising the performance of those around them, meaning more opportunities for children to learn the skills they need to get on in life.
 
'These new schools are an important part of our plan to improve education by raising standards and restoring discipline so our children can compete with the world's best and enjoy a better future.'

Responding to the news, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt accused Mr Cameron of opening free schools in areas of surplus need.

He said, ‘Instead of focusing on the need for more primary school places, David Cameron’s Government has spent £241 million on free schools in areas that already have enough school places.

‘The result is a 200 per-cent increase in the number of infants taught in classes of more than 30.

‘Parents waiting for the results of their children’s primary school applications will be astonished to learn that David Cameron wants to continue funnelling money in to areas of surplus school places, via the free schools programme, rather than addressing the crisis in primary school places.’

Of the 49 new free schools approved, more than ten are primary schools, one is an all-through school and two are specialist schools for children with autism.

Two of the free schools are being opened by the Inspiration Trust, which is led by Dame Rachel De Souza, who was accused last year of being given advanced knowledge of an Ofsted inspection.

Free schools report

The Prime Minister's announcement comes as a new report by the think- tank Policy Exchange claims that free schools are driving up standards of local primary and secondary schools.

The report, ‘A rising tide: the competitive benefits of free schools’, argues that contrary to some criticisms of free schools, they do not drag down overall results of local schools.

However, while it claims that the ‘competitive effect’ free schools create leads to improved academic standards in neighbouring schools, it indicates this effect is only evident among the poorest-performing schools and not nearby high-performing schools which are more likely to see a decline in standards.

The research is based upon a comparison of pupils’ grades from the three geographically closest similar schools within the same local authority to each of the 171 mainstream primary and secondary free schools open so far.

The report concludes that there is no justification for restricting free schools to areas where there is a need for new schools, and makes a number of recommendations for how free schools can grow and expand, including:

  • continuing to approve new free school groups centrally to avoid conflicts of interest among local commissioners;
  • amending the planning system to give a swifter ruling over which buildings can be used for new schools in areas of educational underperformance;
  • giving free schools the absolute first priority, ahead of the NHS or housing, when disposing of public sector land in areas of educational underperformance.

But the National Union of Teachers (NUT) has argued that the findings are not supported by the evidence presented in the report.

The union’s deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney said, ‘The NUT does not accept the conclusions of this report. The findings are not supported by the ‘evidence’ presented in the report itself. The authors also admit that no link can be made between the cause and effects that they nevertheless seek to claim for the free school policy.

‘The samples on which the authors base their recommendations are tiny as they admit in the report and can in no way be considered statistically robust.

‘It is worth noting, though not commented upon by the authors of this report, that over half of the primary free schools and just short of 30 per cent of the secondary free schools are in London where academic results and progress are much higher than the national average. Comparing the performance of the lowest performing nearest schools to the national average and then claiming that the presence of a free school improves their performance fails to give a true picture of overall local performance. A real comparison would be the performance of similar local authority schools which, inexplicably, the report does not do in relation to lower performing schools.’

He added, ‘The one interesting fact revealed in this report is the changing composition of groups approved to open free schools this demonstrates very clearly what the NUT has said all along that academy sponsors have come to dominate the sponsorship of free schools.’

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said, 'David Cameron’s announcement that a future Conservative government would open a further 500 free schools, is worrying for parents and taxpayers.
 
'Policy Exchange’s report, fortuitously timed for the Government to coincide with the Prime Minister’s announcement, is a triumph of propaganda over evidence. The evidence for its claims about the benefits of free schools is paper thin, and the report’s conclusion that "free schools are raising standards for other pupils across the local community" is demolished by its own evidence that standards fall in the majority of established schools when free schools open in their local area.'

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