Teachers' leaders last night expressed scepticism at Nick Clegg's pledge that the Government's new free schools programme will not be allowed to cream off bright pupils or be run for profit by private companies.
In a bid to reassure Liberal Democrats that the policy will improve social mobility, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the free schools would be acceptable only if they reduce social segregation.
He called on Education Secretary Michael Gove to ensure that the second wave of the free schools – to be announced soon – are in poorer neighbourhoods or areas with shortages of school places.
But teaching unions were sceptical. Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "The Government seems to be very comfortable with the idea of state-funded schools being run for profit. It is setting everything in place for this, and the only missing piece of the jigsaw is a legal clause."
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, added: "The sad fact is that the Coalition Government is moving full steam ahead with an Education Bill which will allow all free schools and academies to apply their own rules to select pupils and to make a profit out of children's education."
Under the reforms, parents, teachers, faith groups, charities and other organisations are allowed to set up their own state-funded schools, outside local authority control.
Mr Clegg said free schools "must not be the preserve of the privileged few – creaming off the best pupils while leaving the rest to fend for themselves, causing problems for and draining resources from other nearby schools", and that they should promote "ability and drive not privilege and good connections". He rejected suggestions that private companies could run free schools for profit.
The first 24 free schools are opening this month.