New wave of free schools approved by the Government

Some of the new schools are to be sponsored by grammar school trusts, a move union leaders say is 'indefensible'

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The Independent Online

More than 130 more free schools have been approved by the Government, creating an expected 69,000 new places for pupils.

The new wave of schools - the largest to be approved by the current Parliament - comes amid fierce criticism of real-terms spending cuts within education, with a reported two-thirds of secondary schools making cuts to staff.

Among the 131 schools to be given the green light to open is Stone Lodge Academy, a secondary school in Dartford that has been put forward by the Endeavour Multi Academy Trust, which currently runs two grammar schools.

No selective schools such as grammars are included in the latest wave; Stone Lodge Academy said it will not select pupils based on academic ability.

Others include the Flagship School in Hastings, a special school being led by parents which will offer 56 places for nine to 16-year-olds; and Sapientia Primary Prep School for five to 11-year-olds, proposed by the Sapientia Education Trust, which runs Wymondham College - the largest state boarding school in England.

As many as 20 local authorities have been granted permission to open special educational needs schools, following a significant rise in the number of pupils needing assistance with disabilities or learning difficulties.

Education Secretary Justine Greening said: “We need schools that can bring out the best in every single child no matter where they're growing up, how much their parents earn, or however different their talents are.

”That's why these new schools are so important - they give us the school places we need for the future, and they also give parents more choices to find a great school place in their area that's right for their child.“

Free schools are new state schools that are not under local council control and have freedom over areas such as staff pay and the curriculum.

In total, 124 have opened since 2015, with 373 more, including those announced in the latest wave, due to open.

The Government has pledged to open 500 new free schools by September 2020.

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner remained critical of the scheme, arguing that building the costly new schools was not the best use of taxpayer money.

”While new school places are welcome and necessary, the Government are failing to deliver the number of places that will be needed by 2020,” she said.

“The Free Schools programme has been proven to be an enormously expensive and inefficient way to create school places.

”Today's announcement alone almost certainly comes with a huge price tag, without necessarily even providing new school places in the areas that need them most. And this is at a time when existing schools are facing a severe funding crisis.“

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Her comments follow a scathing report into the Government’s new free schools proposals as set out in the Spring Budget.

A House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report warned children’s futures were being put “at risk” as a result of what they said was the biggest squeeze on school spending to be enforced since the 1990s.

Industry leaders claim have protested the free school plans, which they say earmark billions for state of the art buildings to be created while local authority schools struggle on in desperate need of repair.

Commenting on the latest announcement, Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the NUT, the largest teachers’ union, said: “At a time when the majority of schools are struggling to survive the decision to pour tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money into free schools, for some to be sponsored by grammar schools is indefensible. 

“Clearly the Government has no concern whatsoever about the hundreds of head teachers and the thousands of parents that have spoken out against school funding cuts.

But Toby Young, free schools advocate and Director of New Schools Network, remained confident in saying the independently-run schools were the most cost-effective way of creating much-needed extra places.

He said: ”This is the largest ever cohort of free schools to be approved. 

“The fact that so many of the free schools approved in this wave are outside of London, with over 21 in the Midlands alone, demonstrates this Government's commitment to extending the benefits of the free schools policy to all parts of the country.

“This is a big day for free schools. With 800 either opened or approved to open, providing 400,000 places when full, free schools are now a permanent part of England's educational landscape.”