Are the government's ‘free schools’ really necessary ?

Nick Clegg School visit

Critics are not convinced by the ‘success story’ of free schools

David Cameron will today announce 500 new free schools if the Conservatives come to power at the General Election in May. Extending plans first initiated by the unpopular former Education Secretary Michael Gove, the Conservatives will extend the free places available by 270,000 extra places. Free schools operate outside the reach of local authorities and would be set up by community groups such as parents and charities being ‘start up’ but state funded.

The speech by Cameron will come after he releases the plans for the final instalment of free schools agreed by Parliament under the current government. These will be the last 49 free schools implemented before the looming general election and will be the success story on which Cameron will pin the new plans. He will promise that by voting a Conservative government you will be securing an expansion in education.

Cameron is expected to say how these free schools will raise standards and ‘restore discipline.’ Whilst there are already 4000 free schools open there remains high scepticism by many- there seems to be a lack of strategy and focus to a policy which is not fully government funded. Local areas which already have adequate schooling have seen the opening of unnecessary free schools whilst those places in dire need of new facilities have not been able to attract the academy funding.

Cameron will promise to introduce an extra 270,000 places by 2020 if his party win outright in May. It seems with the election looming and education high amongst voter’s priorities Cameron is keen to show that the Conservatives are on track to deliver. He is sure to include in his speech: ‘Remember- we’re the only party that is committed to this.’ Similarly, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has jumped to defend the implementation of free schools describing them on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as ‘an important part of the mix’ in giving parents a real choice over their child’s education. Free schools are credited by think tank ‘Policy Exchange’ as ‘driving up standards at primary and secondary level.’ The Conservative’s big experiment for education during this government, they are keen to pledge the continuation of their success story.

However the sceptics have still not been silenced; the shadow education secretary Tristan Hunt stressing that free schools are not quite the success story the Conservatives would like the electorate to think and they simply create school places where they are ‘not needed’. A spokesperson for the Local Schools Network has similarly highlighted that when looking at the data it is apparent that free schools actually have very little if no effect on neighbouring schools and if anything use up a ‘huge amount of resource’. Many fear that the figures simply do not warrant the expansion of an unaccountable and ill-placed education ‘experiment’ which to date has cost £1.7bn.