Prime minister David Cameron will today announce the approval of 49 free schools, increasing the number of open or approved free schools to 412.
The announcement coincides with a report by think tank Policy Exchange claiming that free schools have improved standards across their local area.
More than 40,000 children now attend free schools, and two-thirds of schools receiving an inspection were rated as good or outstanding, although the UK Statistics Authority has cautioned against using such figures to draw comparisons with other schools.
Speaking about the announcement, Mr Cameron said: “Delivering the best schools and skills for young people is a crucial part of our long term economic plan to secure a better future for Britain. Free schools set up by teachers, parents and community groups are not only outperforming other schools, but they are raising the performance of those around them.”
The Labour Party have criticised the government for opening free schools in areas with a surplus of school places, and for high-profile failures such as Discovery New School, a montessori free school that closed last April, and Durham Free School, due to close at the end of the month.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have both stated that they would open new schools only in areas with a shortage of school places.
Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt previously claimed that free schools were “diverting millions away from children in areas with a shortage of school places” and that this was “affecting stands in schools, with class sizes soaring, pupils being taught in makeshift temporary classrooms, and children having to travel further and further to get to schools.”
So far 72 per cent of free schools are located in areas with a place shortage. Of the schools being announced today, 90 per cent will be in areas of shortage.
Ministers have also announced that the next wave of applicants will be able to use capital funding to create nursery provision for children aged between two and four, supporting the government’s offer of 15 hours per week of free childcare.
Regarding the announcement, education secretary Nicky Morgan: “With the total number of approved free schools now rising to more than 400, the demand from parents, charities and education experts to set up the schools has proven the programme to be one of the most important modern drivers of social mobility.”
The small number of free schools who so far have received performance results means it is difficult to ascertain their success. A recent report by the Education Select Committee agreed is too early to know how much of an improvement in all schools across the past four years is down to changes in school type.
Chair of the committee and Conservative MP, Graham Stuart, said at the time: “It takes a long time for a child to go through [a] reformed school system”.