£18M spent on 17 pupils – The farce of the free school approvals process

The extent to which the Department for Education (DfE) is prepared to put political imperative ahead of effective and fair distribution of funding for the good of the many has been demonstrated again this week.

The Independent carried a front page story on Friday 19th September on the Trinity Academy in Brixton, a new “free school” that had welcomed 17 pupils on its first day despite receiving approval to open with 120. The article revealed that the DfE had spent £18M to secure a site for the school even though it was in an area that was already offering a surplus of secondary school places. Lambeth Council advised that this number is in excess of 200.


It is barely disputable that this looks like extremely poor value for money as things stand – although, oddly, the “Taxpayers Alliance” never appear to be too concerned with such stories – but in the article the DfE argue in mitigation that “once fully up and running, Trinity academy will deliver 840 high quality secondary school places in Lambeth.”

We are not told how long we should be prepared to wait to be able to judge the efficacy of this claim and we are to take on trust that it “will be high quality”. Of course, we are also not told how this will assist the neighbouring schools who, if this transpires, will lose 120 pupils a year and the funding that goes with them to provide “high quality” education for their pupils.

This is the central concern that I have about the free school programme which I have expressed many times. However, I also think that this story illustrates the absolute nonsense that is the approvals process and the ludicrous haste between approval and operation which means that there is a high risk that this sort of farce will continue to occur.

The DfE require free school proposers to “demonstrate demand” for a new school by getting parents of appropriately aged children to sign a form stating that they would send their children to such a school if it were to open. I understand that children who would attend in the first three years of operation are seen as particularly important and that proposers are expected to demonstrate that their proposed planned admission number (PAN) would at least be met in each case.

So presumably at least 120 parents with children in Year 6 last year signed a form stating they would send their children to Trinity Academy if approved. However, the article states that only 90 parents were “on its books” by the summer. That had dropped to 17 on the first day of term.

There is absolutely no obligation on anyone signing these forms to send their child to the school. The parents are taking no risk as there are other established schools to send their children to. Critically, where there are surplus places, when asked to sign, parents are not presented with the potential ramifications for those schools should the new school open.

I know, because I have seen collection of “demand” in action.

It seems to me that the ability of proposers to collect signatures from a small percentage of an area’s parents is a very poor way to ascertain the need for a school and a distinctly unsound basis for capital spending and value for the money for the taxpayer.

Trinity Academy is the latest in a line of such stories, regular readers of this blog will recall Beccles Free School opening with 38 children across three year groups for example, which, at a time when school budgets are being squeezed in established schools seems profligate and deeply unfair.

Trinity siteAnother issue that this story raises is that of readiness to open. It appears to be standard practice for free schools to open in the September following their approval which has always seemed to me to be fraught with risk particularly where a permanent site has not been found and occupied.

In July this year, a Parliamentary answer revealed that nearly 10% of approved free schools that had intended to open this month were not now able to do so. Following that, a primary free school in Romford was delayed for a year leaving parents with only a couple of weeks to find an alternative.



It strikes me that this undue haste has obvious ramifications for parents but also affects neighbouring schools and, in my view, threatens the successful start of a new school.

If a school is considered worth establishing, why not wait until it is properly ready and on its permanent site to give it its best chance of success? This would also enable the Education Funding Agency (EFA) to pursue better value for money for the taxpayer and only provide capital funding for projects with a high chance of success.

I would also point out that this timeframe not only makes low uptake of places in a new school more likely but it causes serious headaches for existing schools. This is because of the admissions process that local authorities are forced to adopt when a free school is given approval to open in the same year.

trinity academy applicationsWhen Becket Keys free school were in this position in 2011, Essex County Council (ECC) had to run a parallel process alongside their regular admissions arrangements to cater for them. It meant that parents could state preferences for established schools but also apply for a place at the new school even though it was not a legal entity (the funding agreement was not signed until the day before it opened). They also got a month’s extension of the deadline.

This meant that no-one knew how many children were going to attend which school until the first day of term which had obvious ramifications for resource planning in the established schools. The DfE are also in the dark which is why they trot out the same statement in cases such as the Trinity Academy.

My understanding is that ECC will adopt the same process should the “Ongar Academy” proposal receive initial approval this month even though it will not have a permanent site by September 2015.

A full school year between approval and opening would enable admissions to be properly administered, existing schools to plan effectively knowing their likely resource and would give a clear picture as to the actual uptake of places in a new school. It would also allow the EFA to more effectively allocate resource for new projects and provide better value for money for us all.

So why do the DfE persist with the current arrangements? I can only conclude that it is because of the political requirement to open as many free schools as possible before May 2015. However, this approach leaves the government open to the charge of profligacy that they levelled at the previous administration.

Labour have already pledged to halt the free school programme, I believe that they should also make it a priority to review all approved projects that have not yet opened too. If projects do not represent value for money, fulfil a need for school places or demonstrate an opportunity to improve quality of education for the wider school community, they should be shelved.

The current arrangements demonstrably cannot provide that assurance.

Stephen Mayo

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