The government would need to triple the average number of free schools opened each year to meet higher targets for 2020 demanded by Toby Young, the newly appointed director of the New Schools Network.
The journalist and author was appointed last month to lead the government-funded charity after its former chief, Nick Timothy, left to join Theresa May at No 10.
In his first interviews after his appointment, Young (pictured) called on ministers to increase their 2015 target of 500 new free schools between May 2015 and May 2020
Speaking to Schools Week this week, he clarified that he would be happy if 750 were approved in this parliament even if some opened after the next election.
He raised concerns that the government was only committed to funding 500 schools and wanted assurances it would provide cash for additional schools if they were approved before 2020.
He said the target of 500 was no longer ambitious enough, given the need for almost half a million new school places.
Analysis by Schools Week shows that an average of 219 new schools would need to open in each of the next three academic years to meet the target of 750 new schools opened by 2020.
The target of 500 is no longer ambitious enough, given the need for almost half a million new school places
According to figures on the Department for Education website, 96 new mainstream, special and alternative provision free schools opened in the past two years, 54 in 2015 and 42 this September – an average of 70 per year.
At present, 226 projects are already approved and in the pipeline, but a further 178 would need to be approved and all of these opened by 2020 just to reach the government’s current target.
Young points to government figures showing an expected increase in the pupil population of 458,000 by 2020, claiming that the 226 approved schools will provide 140,000 places, assuming an average of 600 per school, but leaving a shortfall of more than 300,000.
“The free schools programme has been so successful it looks as though the 500 target will be met several years ahead of schedule,” Young told Schools Week.
“Consequently, if the government wants to sustain this momentum, meet the basic need for new places and see the new proposer groups identified in the green paper set up schools, it will have to increase the target to 750.”
The appointment of Young, a Conservative supporter who founded the West London Free School, has bolstered claims of a “revolving door” between the government and the NSN.
The charity was launched in 2009 by Rachel Wolf, who later become David Cameron’s education adviser.
Young’s predecessor is now Theresa May’s chief of staff, Another former NSN director, Natalie Evans, was appointed by May as leader of the House of Lords in July.
Schools Week understands that James Johnson, a former NSN researcher, has also left the charity for a position in No 10, while Katherine Howell, who departed in 2014, now advises Evans in the Lords.
Campaigners have questioned the performance of existing free schools following the release of Progress 8 data, casting doubt on whether an acceleration in the programme is the best way to meet a need for more places.
The first publication of new Progress 8 scores last month show that the small batch of free schools who had GCSEs last year had an average progress score of 0.02, compared with 0.09 among converter academies.
However, the government statistics watchdog, the UK Statistics Authority, has previously warned against inferring conclusions from data on the first waves of free schools because of their small size.
Henry Stewart, from the Local Schools Network, says: “Before we start talking about a huge expansion in free schools, shouldn’t we look at the evidence? Where is the evidence that free schools perform any better, and especially that they perform better than other new schools?”
Additional reporting by John Dickens.