Chalk Talk: Starting up a successful school is not quite as easy as it looks

On the face of it, it looks embarrassing that the Government has had to turn away the vast majority of applicants to open up free schools under its flagship education policy – as we reported last week.

On the other hand, we perhaps should be profoundly grateful for our children's sake that civil servants (the 97 of them seconded to the programme) did not rubber-stamp plans to help make a success of the scheme.

If this first year of education policy under the Coalition Government has proved anything, it has probably shown that it is not that easy to set up and run a successful school. Jamie Oliver has also endorsed that message through his TV series, Jamie's Dream School.

In a sense, the whole free school programme is reminiscent of another TV show, Britain's Got Talent. Some exciting proposals emerge at the end of the day, but there is a lot of dross to be sifted through beforehand.

Also, a glance through the proposals that have been publicised tends to show that it is amongst faith groups and those offering an alternative education – such as the Maharishi school in Lancashire and a primary school in West Sussex devoted to teaching through the Montessori method – that the project has often struck a chord. Not quite the parents seeking an escape from poorly performing inner city schools that the scheme first sought to attract.

There are imaginative proposals out there – such as the one I wrote about last week, where a couple of black teachers in south London are seeking to establish a school aimed at helping inner city youngsters escape from the gang culture.

The first year of this programme, though, tends to show it will be more of a bit-part player in transforming education standards. It is on its academies programme – more than 1,000 schools are now seeking academy status with the prospect of thousands of Church of England schools to come – that it will be judged.

* I was interviewing a pupil in a foreign country last week and mentioned how public spending cuts meant libraries were closing in the UK. He look bemused. "Why would anyone want to do that?" he asked. Answers on a postcard, please.

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