Leading article: Free schools – or clubs for the privileged?

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One of the Coalition's earliest moves was the green light it gave to the establishment of free schools, to be set up by any individual, group or organisation that identified a need and was prepared to put in the work.

So far, more than 300 applications have been received, with 10 schools in the advanced planning stage and on course to open in September.

The idea, borrowed from Sweden, is designed to fill a gap in the education system and provide parents, whose local schools may be oversubscribed or performing poorly, with a wider choice. The concept has much to recommend it. Whether it succeeds or not, however, will depend to a great extent on implementation, and one of the tests will be how open these schools really will be to all.

It has emerged that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is finalising a new admissions code designed to simplify the rules about who qualifies for a place at which school. As we report today, the new code is likely to give parents who set up a free school guaranteed places for their children. Across all schools, it is also possible that parents who are teachers will have the right to priority admission for their children. Up to a point, it was always to be expected that parents setting up a free school would want to send their children there. It would be unreasonable to expect anyone to invest the necessary time and expertise without a measure of self-interest. And the desire of parents to found a school worthy, as they would see it, of their children should itself serve as a recommendation of quality.

Yet there are also dangers that – as is feared by their opponents – at least some free schools come to resemble clubs for the privileged, especially if a large group of parents is involved. Add priority for the children of teachers, and how many others will get a look-in? It is to be hoped that Mr Gove, whose ministerial attention to detail has not been especially impressive in his early months, ensures that the new admissions code minimises this risk.

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