The DfE has just published updated lists of existing and proposed Free Schools. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/free-schools-successful-applications-and-open-schools-2014 There are 296 schools in the two lists. Of these, 112, or some 38%, are located within one of the London boroughs. Once the Home Counties regions of the East of England and the South East are added to the London figure the percentage increases to 62% of the national total. By contrast, there are just seven schools in the North East and 12 in the East Midlands. Birmingham, with 13 schools, is the local authority where the largest numbers of schools are located, although Enfield, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Tower Hamlets, three much smaller authorities than Birmingham: each have seven schools located or to be located with their borough.
The majority of the schools, some 232, are mainstream schools, but there are 49 either SEN or alternative provision schools, with 15 schools (sic) listed as 16-19 establishments – 7 of these are in London. Traditional primary (109) and secondary (93) schools dominate the age groupings. However, there are some 43 all-through schools, a number of which are in the special school sector. Personally, I am not yet a fan of such schools in the mainstream sectors where grouping all primary schools that feed a secondary school seems a more enlightened proposition than giving some pupils the opportunity to be part of the school for the whole of their careers while adding others later. Avoiding newcomers being seen as second class citizens seems like a wasteful and unnecessary use of resources. But, no doubt there is some research that shows such schools perform well for all pupils.
Free schools are still contentious with some groups, so it is interesting to see that 7 of the schools are ARK schools, already a large provider of academies in London, and 10 are under the Harris umbrella that has extended north of the river with its free schools, including into Tottenham, the most deprived part of Haringey. There are also three Oasis schools, and a number with E-Act in their name featured in the list. The DfE don’t provide a faith analysis of the schools, but a number are clearly linked to faith groups of both the Christian denominations and other faiths.
This DfE report also doesn’t say anything about the size of the schools, both on opening and in terms of their future maximum numbers. There is no doubt the primary schools will help, especially in and around London, in providing places to cope with the boom in pupil numbers. The presence of some secondary schools in areas of falling rolls or adequate provisions seems rather more wasteful of scare resources. Once the Studio Schools and UTCs are added to this list, the shape of schooling will have changed more between 2010 and 2015 than at any time for a generation. Now might finally be the time to question the continued presence of selective secondary schools? How diverse a school system do we actually want and need? And is diversity and choice being put before the provision of a good school for all pupils?
Since I wrote this piece last night Channel 4 News have carried a report of another school that has failed its Ofsted inspection. Unlike other free schools that have failed, where the promoters were new to education or offering a type of education not previously recognised within the state funded system, this is a school run by a group with extensive mainstream school experience, albeit overseas. Perhaps, this goes to show that running schools in England isn’t as easy as some might have thought and that some local authorities of all political persuasions should have been given more credit for their work.