As new free schools are due to open this month, some have opened in temporary accommodation and others have had to delay due to lack of suitable site. Natalie Evans suggests a better way forward.

In many ways, the building should be the least important part of setting up a new school. Yet all too often it is the most time-consuming and frustrating aspect of the project.

Delays in finding a suitable site can have a huge knock-on effect for the operation of the school in its first years. Understandably, free schools that haven’t been able to establish their site until late spring — or in some cases as late as the summer — have often found they are under-roll for their first year.

This position readily corrects itself in the second and third years. By that time we see an average of three applicants for every secondary place and two for every primary place. But it needn’t, and shouldn’t, be like this.

The hurdle to set up a new free school is set, rightly, very high. No free school can start without the support of local parents prepared to commit to sending their children to the school.

In addition, groups have to articulate a robust and well thought-through curriculum and education plan; ensure they have the right people and skills; and be clear that the figures add up in terms of the school being financially viable.

But even when those tests have been met, the biggest challenge still lies ahead. Where exactly is the school going to be? Necessity being the mother of invention has led to new free schools opening in all sorts of unorthodox buildings: in former court houses, job centres, RAF bases, churches and even mothballed Department for Education (DfE) buildings.

The government has had to think creatively and has stepped up to the challenge; but more can be done.

First, it should be buying up property and sites in areas where there is an absolute shortage of school places, either existing or projected. Recent headlines have screamed about the current primary places shortage, but these children are going to get older and become secondary school age. We need to be doing much more now to plan for that inevitable shortage.

Second, we need to be smarter about using the publicly-owned spaces that already exist. There are existing secondary schools that are under-roll, with whole floors lying empty. Just as charter schools in New York move into an empty floor of existing schools, we too should be considering whether
new schools could move into a disused
part of an under-roll secondary, at least
in the short term until they find a
permanent site.

A process that might have worked for a couple of dozen free schools is creaking at the seams now

Third, we need to consider how well-equipped central government is to oversee the site-finding, negotiation and procurement of all new schools, now the programme is established.

A process that might have worked for a couple of dozen free schools is creaking at the seams now that there are regularly 100 approved free schools working their way through the system at any one time. But just recruiting armies of specialists to join the Education Funding Agency is not the answer.

Instead, government should consider regional contracts with local specialist property firms who know their patch and understand fully the local market dynamics.

These firms could be incentivised on a success fee model, helping accelerate this part of the process and nail down a property as early as possible.

In addition, consideration should be given to allow existing schools that are setting up a new school, and who have a strong track record in managing their own estate well, to be given the financial freedom – within a clearly-defined funding envelope – to negotiate their own sites and building contracts.

Sites and property remain the single biggest headache for free schools – both for the groups themselves and the DfE. “Build it and they will come” is certainly true. We just need to get a whole lot better at it.

 

Natalie Evans is director of independent charity, New Schools Network