Education & Family

Free school 2012 applications reach 281

Church hall, site for St Lukes Church of England Primary School, Camden
Image caption Many free schools are trying to set up in existing buildings

There have been 281 bids to open free schools in England in the second round of applications, the Department for Education has said.

It follows 323 applications made in the first round, of which more than 12 are expected to open in September.

The government says free schools, set up by parents, teachers and other groups, will increase provision and drive up standards.

But a teachers' union said money was being squandered on "trophy schools".

Free schools are founded as academy schools, funded directly by central government, and outside the control of local authorities.

Proposers include community groups, charities, businesses, universities, trusts and religious and voluntary bodies.

The second round of applications includes proposals for 37 university technical colleges (UTCs).

These are secondary schools sponsored by universities and local employers, which have a focus on developing vocational and technical skills alongside traditional academic disciplines.

The second round of applications to set up free schools were received by the Department for Education between 17 March and 15 June.

Image caption Michael Gove said free schools will be 'free from meddling and prescription"

Of the 281 bids, 227 were for mainstream schools, 20 for schools for children with special educational needs, and 34 for alternative provision schools, such as pupil referral units.

Of the 227 mainstream applications, 56% were from local groups, with 18% from independent schools wishing to move into the state sector, and 5% from groups that already run existing academy schools.

The proportion of faith school applications dropped from 49% last year to 29% this year.

Nearly a third - 81 - of the applications were for schools in London.

The successful bidders will be announced in September.

'Ending rationing'

Speaking at the Policy Exchange, Education Secretary Michael Gove said there had been "no drop-off in momentum" in applications.

He said it was "remarkable" that "over a dozen" free schools were due to open this year.

"Before the election, countless people told me that it was foolish to expect any free schools at all to open in September 2011. But we proved them wrong."

"We are not being prescriptive about free schools and so they come in all shapes and sizes," he said.

Some were housed in existing schools, while others would be in adapted buildings including a former library in London and an office building in Norwich, he said.

The government had also made the application process "more rigorous", he said, and introduced interviews for applicants.

"We are absolutely determined to ensure that no one who has an extremist agenda - whether it's politically or religiously extremist - has access to public money," he added, saying a team had been set up to vet applicants.

Mr Gove said about a third of the free schools aiming to open in September were located in the most deprived 20% of the country.

The Department for Education says that the number of new applications is in line with expectations.

The first application window ran from 18 June 2010 to 11 February of this year.

'Lavishing' money

The National Union of Teachers said it was "shameful" the government was "squandering public money on a few 'trophy schools'" at a time of "huge cuts" .

General secretary Christine Blower said there had been "a disproportionate amount of help and investment of resources into supporting these few schools".

This had come from 100 DfE staff and from the government body Partnership for Schools, which had been helping to find and fund free schools' premises, she said.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) said Mr Gove had not detailed the full amount of money spent on free schools.

ATL pay, conditions and pensions head Martin Freedman said: "At a time when teachers are facing a pay freeze and are being told that the government can't afford their pensions, Michael Gove is lavishing so much money on free schools that his department is embarrassed to reveal the total."

Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham said Mr Gove was "pouring time, energy and resources into a free schools programme which will be irrelevant for most parents, and is diverting funding out of mainstream schools into wealthier areas".

A total of £50m - taken out of an axed technology fund for schools - has been allocated for free schools for the first year of the policy.

But no detail has been given on how this has been spent and whether it covers capital spending on school premises.

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