Education Secretary Michael Gove's free school project is like an "unguided missile" – missing the areas that most need them, according to a report out today.
The study, published by the Royal Society of Art (RSA), adds: "There does not appear to be any rhyme or reason as to where free schools are being encouraged or permitted."
As a result, several have been set up in areas where there is no shortage of school places – rather than in local authorities facing a dire shortage of primary school provision.
"Free schools seem to be an unguided missile rather than a targeted weapon in the school programme," said its author, Robert Hill, a former government adviser on education.
"The impact of free schools would be enhanced if they were developed strategically in localities where new places are needed or where there is school failure – rather than investing in extra capacity in areas where the school system is performing well."
The report's findings follow the news last week that one of the Government's flagship free schools in Beccles, Suffolk, had so far only attracted 37 pupils for the start of the new term in September.
It was offering places to 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds for the first time just as neighbouring Sir John Leman High School was opening its doors to 11- and 12-year-olds as a result of a council reorganisation.
Today's report, The Missing Middle: the Case for School Commissioners, argues that the growth of free schools and academies – more than half the country's state secondary schools either have or are converting to academy status – has left the Government unable to police the system.
It says it is "not a rational or sustainable system" to expect the Department for Education to police school admission arrangements throughout the country. It adds that "hard to place" pupils and vulnerable children are currently being left behind if academy head teachers "refuse to play ball" and offer them places.
Instead, this should be put in the hands of regionally established school commissioners who would have a better chance of understanding the needs of their localities.
The report's findings were endorsed by teachers' leaders and Labour's education spokesman Stephen Twigg last night. "There is real concern that in pursuing his pet projects, the Education Secretary is wasting money," he said. "New schools should be built in areas where there is real local demand, not because they fit with the Government's dogmatic ideology. Michael Gove's claim that free schools would be set up in response to parental demand was nothing more than a smokescreen.
"Instead of pursuing pet projects, Michael Gove needs to get a grip and address the urgent crisis in primary school places. Nearly half a million new primary school places are needed across the country by 2015."
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: "It is getting to the point where no one but the Education Secretary believes that free schools are a sensible idea.
A different class: But are they necessary?
The report's findings were endorsed by teachers' leaders and Labour's education spokesman.
Free schools in places where there is no shortage of places:
Wandsworth, south London: the borough has a surplus of 1,287 secondary school places. Yet a new secondary school providing a further 120 places – the Ark Bolingbroke Academy – is due to open in September 2012. In addition, the Michaela Secondary Free School plans to open in 2013. The borough does need an extra 115 primary school places.
Bristol: there are four secondary schools with a collective 300 surplus places within a few miles of the Bristol Free School. Local head teachers say there's no need for extra places.
Warwickshire: the County Council formally expressed concern to the Department for Education that the additional places which the Priors Marston Free School would provide were not needed, according to their pupil forecasts.
Essex: the Gateway Academy in Thurrock is opening a primary school on its site in September 2012 and offering places at the secondary school to tempt pupils to join them. There are five other primary schools in the area, all of which have a surplus capacity.
Derby: there's concern that the Derby Pride Academy, an alternative provision free school, could jeopardise the viability of the existing city council-run Kingsmead pupil referral unit.
Suffolk: as The Independent reported, the Beccles free school has signed up just 37 pupils despite declaring widespread interest to the Department for Education. It's opening at the same time as a nearby school offers places to 11- and 12-year-olds for the first time.
- More about: