Headteachers and parents' leaders are demanding an investigation into the selection process for the Government's flagship free schools in the wake of claims the policy is designed to favour middle-class applicants and religious "zealots".
They argue the present system for deciding which projects go ahead lacks transparency and is putting parents off the scheme. A senior Cambridge admissions tutor has already branded the free schools selection process a "lousy commercial scam". Dr Michael Hrebeniak told The Independent it was aimed at "the ruthlessly ambitious middle classes and religious zealots".
Early research showed three-quarters of the first tranche of 24 free schools had fewer free school meal pupils than their neighbours. One in three of the latest 100 to be approved had a religious connection.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "There seem to be lots of questions about the selection process for free schools. It may allay people's concerns if the process were to become more transparent. It's because the people don't know how things are being done that problems are being caused."
Lesley Gannon, head of research and policy development at the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Until the profession and local communities can be absolutely clear about how and why free schools and academy sponsors are selected, the perception will persist that precious resources are being diverted to so-called 'pet projects' rather than being directed to areas of greatest need."
Margaret Morrissey, of the pressure group Parents' Outloud added: "I have a real concern that people who are not experts about the education system in a given area are making the decisions."
She added that many parents were "scared" to put their children down for free schools because they wrongly thought they would lose their right to a place in a local authority school.
The ASCL has been blocked from pursuing Freedom of Information Act requests about the financing of free school, with civil servants arguing that such information would breach commercial confidentiality.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said all free schools were being set up as a result of a desire to improve education in their area. "Free schools do not serve any commercial purpose," she added. "Groups cannot profit from schools."