But critics say growth of these schools undermines state education, says Ruth Thomson.
Pupils at Barrow 1618 burst cheering through a big paper banner to signal the official opening of their free school, one of 55 such schools to open this term. The 70-place school in this small Shrophire village is a very local solution to a local problem, but its opening comes against a mounting national debate on the free school programme and its future direction.
State-funded but outside local authority control, free schools have been highly controversial from the get-go. Like academies, they have greater powers than LA-run schools over their curriculum, opening times and staff pay and conditions, and cannot be academically selective. To supporters, they represent a model for driving up standards in education; to critics, they undermine the state education system (see box).
Away from the arguments, however, a huge variety of free schools are starting to deliver the learning that they feel families want for their children. Included in this second wave of schools are Dixon's Music Primary in Bradford and the Bilingual Primary School in Brighton, both the first of their kind in England. Within this wave too are primary schools aiming to meet the needs of both children and working families by linking with nursery providers. And while it was feared that some free schools would adopt overly formal curricula, these schools have opted for more experiential, holistic curricula.
In Barrow, it was finding that their local primary school was earmarked for closure, due to falling numbers of children, that prompted a group of parents to intervene and set up a school.
The C of E Barrow 1618 free school occupies the old school building, while moved into the reception room is 18-place Little Acorns Montessori Nursery. The school day for all children runs from 8.30am to 3.30pm, with a breakfast club available at 8.00am and after-school provision until 6.00pm.
Its website explains: 'If your child enjoys learning, playing and being outdoors, jumping in puddles, making mud pies, picking and eating radishes that they have grown, or collecting eggs from the henhouse and baking delicious cakes, Barrow 1618 is the place to be.'
Head teacher Andrew Taylor says, 'At Barrow 1618 we blend proven, effective and modern teaching and learning in core subjects with a strong emphasis on learning outside of the classroom in all its forms. We are set in the beautiful Shropshire countryside and aim to make the most of the rich learning opportunities this provides. Parents really like our distinctive ethos and we have opened with almost 50 per cent more pupils than our DfE target.'
In Hertfordshire, Hatfield Community Free School has been set up to accommodate some of the 85 extra places needed in the area and was proposed by a group of parents who felt strongly about their children being schooled locally.
Its three reception classes of 20, to be run by a qualified teacher and supported by a 'learning support practitioner', will share their building with Squirrels Day Nursery.
Principal Dr Sue Attard says, 'We wanted to have a private company linked to our project to provide childcare and nursery education so that it could be a community school that meets the needs of working parents.Squirrels is a hugely successful choice as they've bought into the ethos of our school to give children a better future, encourage resilience and raise aspirations.'
With a doctorate in the pupil voice, she welcomes the 'curriculum freedom' that can be gained through a free school. 'We'll have to adhere to the statutory regulations but can be freer with the avenues that we pursue to achieve them,' she says.
She is envisaging a 50:50 split between adult-led and child-led learning, a focus on oracy to tackle poor listening and communication skills among local children and taking every opportunity to capitalise on children's interests to take their learning forward.
In Northumberland, it was parents' concerns about formal learning that inspired the village of Cramlington's free school. For owners of Little Angels Nursery, Debbie and Ian Wylie, setting up the school provided an opportunity to carry early years values, ethos and practices into primary school. With little whole-class teaching, a cookery corner in each class and a Forest School, run by qualified staff, Cramlington Village Primary School, says its prospectus, aims to offer 'practical first-hand experiences, personalised learning programmes for all ages, and play-based, but challenging, learning opportunities until children are seven'.
Mrs Wylie explains, 'Children's physical and emotional needs have to be met before they can learn and parents told us that ethos was being lost in some schools. We want children to enjoy their learning and to "deformalise" it.'
For Mrs Wylie to become principal, she had to resign as a director of her nursery, put the school's nursery provision out for tender and detach herself from this legal process to avoid any conflict of interest and meet the 'not-for-profit' requirements of the programme.
Free school funding cannot be spent on nursery provision, however, guidance for 2014 states schools will qualify for all free entitlement money and can charge parents for extra nursery provision - subject to LA agreement - directly, or through a subsidiary company or by contracting with an independent provider.
It is this question of profit that looks set to become incendiary in the coming months. The primary population rose by 78,000 on last year, the largest increase in a decade, and it is no blip - under-fives numbers rose by 400,000 in the five years to 2011. Yet free schools at present total just 79.
Some have voiced frustration with current numbers - the Financial Times described the programme as a 'damp squib' (2 September) - while others have called for another 'big bang' of deregulation, wiping away current barriers to investment, especially around premises, and opening the doors to large for-profit education providers to enter the market and run chains of schools.
Rachel Wolf, director of New Schools Network (appointed by Government to advise new schools), says, 'The free schools movement has already outstripped the pace of the first few years of the Academies programme; in the same time period, there are nearly 200 free schools in the pipeline, compared to 17 academies. However, to go to serious scale and help deliver the additional school places needed, consideration should be given to allowing responsible profit-making organisations to enter the market.'
For critics of the scheme, a profit incentive makes a deeply unpopular programme totally unpalatable. The teaching unions have been hugely critical of Breckland Free School which has awarded for-profit Swedish company Internationella Engelska Skolan a ten-year, £21m contract to run the school.
Hank Roberts, president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says, 'Everyone needs to wake up to the threat our whole education system is under before it is too late. Many people realise that the Government is privatising the NHS, but opposition to academies and free schools, while growing, is still not as universal as it should and must be.'
Asked about free schools becoming 'for profit' at the Leveson phone-hacking inquiry, education secretary Michael Gove said, 'It's my belief that we could move to that situation.'
Originally, Government 'sold' the programme as a community initiative, free from profit and big business. That is true of Langley Hall Primary Academy, in Berkshire, one of the 24 first-wave schools, and it looks set to remain so. The school opened with two reception classes and one class for each year up to Year 6 and running an extended day from 7.30am to 6.00pm. One year on it has added a second class to Years 2-6 (156 children), doubled its staff team and built up a waiting list of some 400 children.
'We could fill the school again, and that's within a year,' says education director Sally Eaton. 'Parents are making the choice on personal recommendation.'
On profit-making she says, 'I think it is a complication that may move the focus from being child-centric to profit-centric and may cause some problems. We're here to do the best for the children and the community and that's our focus. We're doing a great job without profit.'
FOR AND AGAINST
State-funded but outside local authority (LA) control, free schools needn't follow the national curriculum, can set their own opening times and staff pay and conditions, and must operate a fair and inclusive admissions policy. The schools can be founded by any suitable candidate, which to date has included parents, teachers, charities, faith groups, independent schools and private firms.
Rachel Wolf, New Schools Network director, argues that free schools:
- help raise standards and address the unequal educational landscape by introducing competition and making schools more accountable
- avoid problems of centrally-driven policies. Free schools reflect local parents' wishes and are rooted in their community
- give all parents choice - not just the 'wealthy' who can afford school fees or to buy a house in a good catchment area
- provide capacity in areas where there is a shortage of places
- provide opportunity for parents where local schools have been closed down
- are much more rigorously held accountable on their admissions policies, curricula and other areas than most schools so will remain inclusive.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers argues that free schools:
- report directly to the DfE, making them less accountable financially and to local parents and communities
- may enable firms to run schools for profit and cream off public money allocated for education
- fail to create capacity in areas with a shortage of places
- are often set up in areas with surplus places
- draw money away from LAs and other state-funded schools
- make it harder for LAs to co-ordinate places for all pupils and to fund support services, such as education psychologists
- will create a two-tier system by attracting the most able pupils and weakening other schools
- needn't employ qualified teachers
- can be independent schools - some have already converted to take advantage of public money
- have received substantial funding that will benefit few at a time of huge Government cuts
- might offer a rigid and unimaginative curriculum
- lack evidence they will raise standards.
- Cramlington Village Primary School, www.villageprimary.org
- Langley Hall Primary Academy, www.lhpa.co.uk
- Free Schools in 2014 - How to apply, www.education.gov.uk