News emerged on Friday that a new free school in Brixton has opened with just 17 of the 120 pupils they planned to take. The Trinity Academy has opened its doors to year 7 (11 year olds) on a site that the Department for Education purchased for £18m but the planned admissions have not materialised. Clearly the school has satisfied DfE that it will be viable in the long term, but the affair lends more weight to criticism of the government’s free schools programme.
I can see free schools as potential options where local provision is inadequate – whether that’s due to the poor quality of available provision or because of a lack of places. And there are certainly parts of the country which have schools that are performing poorly or too few places (or too few places in the sort of schools that parents want). Where provision is good and places are available in line with parental demand there should be no grounds for justifying huge amounts of public money on opening new schools. That is precisely what free school critics have argued, and with some justification.
The situation in Lambeth is worth looking at. In terms of performance, Lambeth’s schools achieved well above national averages in the proportion of pupils making expected progress in English and maths and in GCSE results.
|% of pupils making expected progress||% of pupils achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs||% achieving A*-C in English and maths GCSE|
|England – state funded schools only||70.4%||70.8%||60.6%||61.3%|
Of the 14 mainstream secondary schools in Lambeth with Ofsted inspection reports available, four are rated ‘outstanding’, eight ‘good’ and two are rated ‘satisfactory’. [Under the new Ofsted inspection framework ‘satisfactory’ has been replaced by ‘requires improvement’, but the assessments in Lambeth were carried out under the old regime].
With 85% of state-funded secondary schools rated good or better, Lambeth’s figures compare well with national figures, which, before the introduction of the new Ofsted framework was 79% receiving the top two ratings. Whilst a borough-wide perspective can mask local options to parents, it’s hard to suggest that local provision is inadequate.
The situation is compounded by the fact that figures from Lambeth Council, where the school is located, show that there is a surplus of secondary school places in the Borough. Figures suggest the Borough will have a surplus of 226 secondary school places this year.
So, both in terms of available places and the quality of provision, there appears to be no need for a free school to open in the area. The lack of take up by parents appears to back this up.
Which begs the question, why was this application to open a new free school ever allowed to progress?
DfE is supposed to ensure that free school applications can evidence sufficient demand for their proposals. At the Archer Academy, we had over 1,100 local parents expressing interest in sending their children to our school and we received 350 applications in our first year (for 150 places). Trinity Academy apparently received 90 applications for 120 places. This information would have been known back in December 2013 and DfE should have moved quickly to avoid this situation from arising. Having a small number of spare places is one thing, but to have 85% of places untaken is unacceptable.
We’ve had far too many of these free school fiascos. Until DfE introduces sufficient checks to ensure situations like this are not allowed to happen, it will be hard to argue that free schools are a credible option for addressing a lack of local provision.
Free schools are not a panacea to all our educational challenges and the sooner DfE wakes up to this, the better.