ree Schools are a flagship Government education policy. The Government claims that they represent a parent and teacher-led 'schools revolution' but just five per cent of the free schools approved to open in 2014 are being set up by parent groups while over half are being established by multi-academy chains, established mainstream schools or academies. Although still a tiny proportion of England's schools (less than one per cent), free schools nevertheless have the potential to cause immense damage to our education system.
Despite educating small numbers of children, free schools are receiving a disproportionate share of education funding. They have rightly been described as 'unguided missiles' with the capacity to seriously undermine established schools. Removing the ability of local authorities to plan school places and the range of educational provision to meet all needs has moved England towards a chaotic system where efficient planning is much harder. New free schools can suddenly pop up in empty premises, with support and funding from Whitehall, regardless of the damage they may do locally. This is no way to run an education system. Our children deserve far better.
Instead of Local Authorities being funded to address the primary place shortage that is gripping many parts of the country, some councils are instead facing a growing and excessive surplus of unnecessary secondary school places because the Secretary of State has approved new secondary free schools in local areas in which there is demonstrably no need.
In pursuing his ideologically-driven, costly and wasteful free school programme from Westminster, the Education Secretary has failed to provide the support to local authorities that would enable them to provide new primary school places in areas of genuine need. Michael Gove is failing in his duty to parents, pupils and the taxpayer and is creating a market of competing schools that threatens to destabilise existing school provision. They are also creating wasteful surplus places at a time when school budgets are under significant pressure.
Free Schools offer less transparency and undermine community cohesion. They are not required to employ qualified teachers and are not accountable to democratically elected local authorities despite being funded by the tax payer. This ideologically-driven experiment is hard to justify at a time of school budget cuts in addition to the loss of vital local authority services for Special Education Needs (SEN) pupils, the squeeze on libraries and Sure Start amongst others.
Free schools are answerable only to the Secretary of State and, where they fail to provide an acceptable standard of education, Local Authorities have no power to step in. Despite claims that free schools would 'raise standards', the evidence so far is that they are performing no better than maintained schools despite serving less representative intakes than their neighbours. Two years after the first free schools opened, it is time to take stock, examine the operation and consequences of the free schools' programme and consider how a future Government should respond.
There really can be no justification for the systematic dismantling of the English education system that we are currently witnessing. There is no educational basis to support the wholesale conversion of schools to academy status and the ending of the role of local authorities. Without sound educational reasons for its course of action, the Government stands accused of pursuing an ideological agenda. Separating schools from local authorities, handing them over to business-oriented sponsors, establishing a market place in which schools compete for pupils and funding and strengthening the powers of the Secretary of State and Whitehall officials to determine the future of schools are the preparatory steps to full scale privatisation of our education system.
The NUT will continue to campaign against the privatisation of education, for a good local school for every child and every community and to defend state comprehensive education.