New free school wave in 2018 to be targeted in 'challenging areas'

The next round of applications for free schools will open in early 2018 and will be particularly focused on “challenging areas” that haven’t yet benefited from the programme.

Free schools – a form of new school opened via applications to central government – have been a pivotal government policy since 2010.

In this year’s general election, the Conservatives pledged to open 100 free schools each year of the parliament but this only amounts to 17 extra free schools given those already in the pipeline.

Today’s ‘Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential’ paper states that the government will “invite a new wave of mainstream free school applications in early 2018, with a particular focus on enabling more challenging areas to feel the full benefit of the programme”.

The news will cheer prospective applicants who have been waiting since last spring for the next round of applications after bidding was indefinitely delayed by the general election.

It has also been broadly welcome by the New Schools Network, the charity that promotes free schools and assists with their opening.

Toby Young, Director of New Schools Network, pointed to the strong GCSE results of free schools in Bradford, Blackburn and Warrington, adding that their performance meant “it is not surprising that free schools feature in the Social Mobility Action Plan”.

However, it is a blow for the original ideology of the programme which was built on the view that any parent able to show demand for the school should be able to apply.

In recent years, applications increasingly came from successful multi-academy trusts seeking to expand rather than parent or teacher groups, but these trusts are also needed to support turnaround in struggling schools that are already open.