Free schools could fizzle out due to wrangling over cash, warns ex-minister

Kate Proctor
Warning: Greg Hands said the funding system was slow and bureaucratic: Alex Lentati

The free school movement “risks running out of steam” unless parents and charities who want to set them up get easier access to funding, a senior Tory said today.

Former London minister Greg Hands praised the roll-out of 442 schools across the country, spearheaded by then education secretary Michael Gove, but said the “bureaucratic” funding system, and the fact that more than half the schools are in London, means the vision might never reach its “true potential”.

The first free schools opened in 2011, and until September this year were funded by the state through the ­Education and Skills Funding Agency quango. They are now funded by the Department for Education directly.

Mr Hands, MP for Chelsea and Fulham, who will lead a debate in Westminster Hall today, said: “There is a risk the free schools movement might not fulfil its true potential. You will end up with schools in an area like mine — which is the centre of the movement — but it has a risk of running out of steam unless more is done to reinvigorate the movement.

“The funding needs to be more flexible and more innovative in terms of finding sites. Some who want to set up schools are parents — the people who think, ‘I’m not satisfied in my area,’ and who want to set it up, but once it gets to the funding, it can take many years, by which point their own children may have moved on to secondary school for example. We also need to get this to move beyond London.”

The schools can be set up by groups of parents, teachers or charities. There are 180 in London, five of them in Mr Hands’s constituency, including Fulham Boys School and the West London Free School, co-founded by journalist Toby Young.

Mr Hands said it was important to look into the issue now after the head teacher of Fulham Boys School, Alun Ebenezer, said that he probably would not have set up the school had he known at the start of the process how “clunky” the funding process would be.

The numbers of free school applications have steadily increased since 2011. In the most recent round 124 groups applied in a programme set up for groups located outside London.

Mr Hands said the agency that funded the schools is "kind of bureaucratic, slow and not innovative", but added that the use of old police stations for school sites in London had been effective.

A Department for Education spokesperson said the free school programme “has been an outstanding success”.

There were now over 400, with 86 per cent rated good or outstanding, and 100 new applications had been received.