Teachers are half of free school inquiries

By Angela Harrison
Education correspondent, BBC News


More than 700 groups are interested in starting a "free school" in England and half of those are made up of teachers, ministers say.

Groups can apply from today to set up a new "state-funded independent school".

The government has set out what groups will need to do to get approval.

Education Secretary Michael Gove says the scheme will drive up standards, but critics say it will cause chaos at a local level and other schools will lose out.

He believes "free schools" are a way of raising achievement in areas where local authority-run schools are not providing a good quality education.

The main aim is to close the attainment gap between rich and poor and teachers have been attracted to the scheme, he says, by the desire to "make a difference" - and the freedoms it offers.

The free schools policy is similar to the charter schools system in the USA and one run in Sweden.

Mr Gove said: "In America, some of the most successful schools that have been set up have been set up by teachers.

"We have been joined by teachers from the state sector who want to branch out and set up their own schools and they particularly want to target the disadvantaged.

"They want to make sure that the achievement gap is closed."

Schools in shops

He has confirmed he is removing some of the barriers in the planning system which were stopping parents and other groups from establishing new schools.

This will mean groups will be able to set up schools in a variety of buildings, including shops and offices.

The government has launched an online guide and a 10-page application form needed to start the process.

Groups will have to show demand from parents, the school's aims, curriculum, teaching methods and possible sites for the school.

About 720 groups have expressed an interest in starting a school.

The free schools scheme is one of the two key plans set to change the shape of England's schools system.

The other is the academies programme, where good schools are being encouraged to opt out of local authority control.

Some schools are due to convert to academies in the autumn.

The government expects the first of the new breed of "free schools" to open in September next year.

Mr Gove said the schools would be monitored by Ofsted inspectors and would face closure if they failed.

"I am not anticipating failure. I am anticipating success. But we will be rigorous in ensuring that those who do go down this road are equipped to make it a success," he said.

"And if they falter, if things go wrong, if there's any jiggery-pokery, schools will close."

The New Schools Network, established to advise groups on how to set up schools, has now been given a grant of £500,000 by the government, it was announced on Friday. The group is led by Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to the Conservative party

The network also links groups to "education providers", including charities and private companies, which would set up trusts to organise the day-day running of the schools.

In most cases, parents themselves might play a role on a new school's governing body but would not be involved in teaching or the running of a school.

The first stage of the application process involves groups setting out their aims and "vision" for the school and the area they hope to serve as well as showing demand from parents.

They will also need to have ear-marked possible sites for the school and give details of any organisation they plan to work with.

Vetting questions are also asked about the individuals involved in the bid: whether any are barred from working with children or are bankrupt, convicted criminals or have ever been members of proscribed organisations.

At a later stage, groups would need to give a full business plan, setting out the school's financial viability and a detailed breakdown of its curriculum.

Free schools will not have to follow the national curriculum but will need to provide an education that is "broad and balanced", in the same way as new academies will.

Teaching unions are united in their opposition to them, saying they will draw money, staff and pupils from other schools.

NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: "Rather than providing opportunities to all parents, it will privilege the few at the expense of the many.

"Despite reassurances from Michael Gove that 'free' schools would not be run for profit, there is the strong possibility under this system that governing bodies could increasingly contract out the running of schools to private companies in return for management fees.

"Adopting such a business model to our schools will amount to the sweeping dismantling of our education system, turning it over to unaccountable, unelected companies."

Labour's former education secretary Ed Balls said: "Michael Gove's policy is not announcing any new money at all. So all the costs for these new schools will come from the existing schools budget.

"And we know that on the one hand he's announced in the last few weeks he's putting on hold the plans to rebuild hundreds of new schools. He's told half a million children they'll no longer get the free school meals that we had promised in poorer families. But he's also doing this new free schools policy. Where is the money going to come from?"

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