Wave 13 of the free schools applications opened today. Mark Lehain explains how it differs from previous rounds

The next wave of free school applications announced today will be quite different to the ones that have gone before – so if you are remotely interested in the policy or maybe even bidding yourself, it’s worth paying close attention to the details.

After the success of the ‘School cuts’ campaign during last year’s general election, the government decided it had to find more cash for education. There was little extra from the Treasury, so quite a bit of the money previously ringfenced for free schools was transferred to the general school budget.

This is the opportunity for new players to enter the school system

This means there’s less in the free school pot – so for this round the DfE has decided to tightly focus the (still substantial) remainder on areas that combine growing populations with low outcomes and opportunity, but which haven’t yet felt the benefits of a free school. Given the circumstances, this feels the right thing to do, as it concentrates the programme on places which have been historically neglected, and where it can have the greatest impact.

Wave 13 will be open only to proposer groups seeking to open mainstream primary, secondary, all-through and 16-to-19 free schools. The DfE has stated its intention to run a separate process for special and AP applicants in the summer.

The criteria stipulate that the focus of the free school programme will now be on the following:

– Specific areas identified by the DfE as having the lowest educational performance and the lowest capacity to improve
– Areas with both a basic need for new places and low standards
– Areas as yet untouched by the free school programme

In practical terms, this means that in order to make a compelling need case for a new school, applicants need to show that:

– a high proportion of the places being proposed are required to meet basic need; and
– the proposed school will serve one of the third of local authority (LA) districts identified by the DfE as having the lowest standards and capacity to improve; or
– the proposed school is in a pocket of low standards where there is a very strong case that a new free school will address the standards issue.

To assist groups in figuring out where to apply, the DfE has published a map of the areas identified as having the lowest standards and greatest need for additional pupil places.

For those who want to open a school outside of these areas, there is still an opportunity to demonstrate how their proposed school would be based in, and benefit, a pocket of poor performance. Addressing entrenched educational failure has always been a key driver behind the free school programme, and I see no reason why this should change with this next wave.

Given the controversy and hype, it’s sometimes been easy to forget that in the end, free schools exist to provide new school places and make for real educational reform, both where they open and across the system as a whole.

The beauty of the free school policy has always been its ability to introduce innovation into the system. This won’t change with the new criteria – it will just be more focused on communities that need something different. This doesn’t mean a group of amateurs will be handed funds to set up their own school – if anything the process will be even more rigorous than is has been before – but this is the opportunity for new players to enter the school system and bring in genuinely exciting projects.

 

Mark Lehain is interim director of the New Schools Network, whose new development programme for supporting free school applications has opened today