70 per cent of free schools not filled two years after opening, Labour claims

 

Education Editor

Three out of four of the Government’s flagship free schools failed to fill their places on opening, according to new research published on Thursday.

An analysis by the Labour party says that 70 per cent of free schools were still not full two years after their opening and that as a result the Government is funding free schools for 1,500 more pupils than are actually attending.

In addition, the party cites a National Audit Office report which claims that two thirds of free school places were not in an area in most need of primary school places at a time when official estimates say an extra 240,000 places are needed by this September, as a boom in the birth rate works its way into schools. However, officials from the Department for Education denied this.

Shadow Schools Minister Kevin Brennan claimed that the Government had “indefensibly diverted millions away from children in areas with a shortage of school places, choosing instead to open free schools in areas where there are already enough places”.

As a result, there was “a crisis in primary school places, with soaring class sizes, more temporary and unsuitable classrooms and children travelling further and further to get to school”, he added.

The analysis comes at a time of growing controversy over free schools with teachers’ union conferences demanding over Easter that Education Secretary Michael Gove being urged to restore to local authorities the right to open new schools. At present, new schools must be either free schools or academies.

They argued that local councils were more likely to be able to assess the demand for new places and react quickly to supply them.

They were also critical of the opening of the new £45 million selective free school for sixth-formers in Westminster, designed to provide places for 500 bright disadvantaged teenagers.

The National Union of Teachers, in particular, agreed to mount a national campaign against the new school with representatives of the country’s existing sixth form colleges mounting a demonstration outside it.

They also threatened strike action at existing sixth form colleges where jobs are threatened because of cuts in their budgets despite the millions allocated for the new free school.

Labour’s research showed that of the 24 free schools opened in 2011, only 12 reached their capacity for the first year intake. That was followed by nine out of 57 in 2012, 28 out of 93 in 2013 - bringing the total to 49 out of 174

It estimated that 17,500 new places could have been provided if the places in areas where there were already enough primary school places were re-allocated to areas of need.

“We will prioritise new school places in areas where there are shortages, have rigorous local oversight of schools and ensure that all teachers have or are working towards qualified teacher status,” Mr Brennan added. The Government is allowing schools to recruit non-qualified teachers, with Mr Gove saying it gives them the same opportunities as independent schools to hire “fantastic” drama, p.e and music staff.

A spokesman for the DfE said: “Less than three years after the first school opened, 24,000 pupils are already attending free schools. That is a fantastic achievement.

“We also know that the longer a free school is open, the more popular it becomes. For this September, free schools are attracting almost three applications per place.”

He added: “Seven in 10 free schools are in areas with a shortage of places. In addition, we have given councils an additional £5 billion to create new places - double the amount spent by the previous government over the same period. This funding had already led to the creation of an extra 260,000 places, all in areas of need, by May last year, with thousands more on stream.”

As an example of popular free schools, it said the West London free school in Hammersmith, launched by journalist Toby Young with an emphasis on teaching Latin, had received more than 1,100 applications for its 120 places.

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