New Schools Network: Let parents take over 'untouchable' schools

Parents and community groups should be allowed to take over failing schools, according to a new report from the New Schools Network that has heavily criticised the government’s approach to free schools.

The NSN wants the government to introduce a new arm of the free schools process that would allow applicants – including parents and community groups – to submit proposals to take over “untouchable” schools that are unable to find sponsors.

According to the NSN, 92 schools, with an estimated 35,000 pupils, are currently “in limbo” after receiving an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted grade but failing to secure sponsorship. Ten have a sponsor but no proposed opening date, including four that have been approved for more than five years.

The NSN said 31 of these schools are “untouchable” – meaning they’ve remained unsponsored for at least 12 months.

The charity has now called for the DfE to offer “financial incentives” to groups with a proven track record who are prepared to take on these schools, and said allowing communities and parents to sponsor will help ease tensions surrounding the process and ensure “proper competition and choice”.

Luke Tryl, director at NSN (pictured), said allowing parent groups to take over “untouchable orphan schools” will help to both “turnaround failing schools and re-empower communities with a stake in their children’s educations”.

“That tens of thousands of pupils have been left to languish in schools deemed in need of new leadership, and that 13,000 have been stuck in such schools for more than a year is a scandal.”

The proposed reform would involve an additional route under the free school process where applicants could propose to sponsor “untouchable” schools.

NSN said they would receive “financial incentives” to do so, with applicants tested on their “vision for the school, the curriculum offer, plans to improve leadership, previous educational experience, financial evidence and community engagement”.

This would also “unlock the sponsorship process” to parents who currently feel “shut out” of the choices made by regional schools commissioners with “little community feedback built in”, the NSN report stated.

The report added while this would be more expensive than regular sponsorship, it would be cheaper than opening a new school on its own. RSCs would decide which schools would be available to sponsor.

But Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said “parachuting in NSN-approved groups to take over schools would be a recipe for disaster”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was time to “get away from organisations trying to foist their favourite hobby horse on the education system”.

He said we should instead be looking at why so many schools are without a sponsor, and said the DfE should stop “stigmatising” schools through Ofsted and using sponsorship as a “default position” for school improvement.

Michael Pain, chief executive of Forum Strategy, warned the “bar for expansion must be set very high” and without exception, with any groups taking on sponsorship being able to demonstrate robust governance, ability to secure improvement and a strong model to allow for growth.

He added: “The risks that arise from not having these elements in place are all too familiar, so due diligence is essential.”

Free schools were the flagship education policy of the coalition government. There are currently 442 free schools, with a further 261 in the pipeline.

But the NSN has accused the DfE of “severely limiting the potential of the programme” by turning its back on the original community-focused and innovation-led model for free schools, and has warned the movement has become “a bureaucratic mechanism for delivering school places, which is sometimes failing to do even that.”

Just 22 new schools were approved in the 13th wave of the programme, announced last month.

The NSN also wants the DfE to commit to opening 100 free schools every year, ensuring they reach every local authority in England, as well as creating a new dedicated free school wave for alternative provision.

The report accused the DfE of making the application process “an unfair process which has actively discouraged competition, leaving the creation of new schools solely to one-size-fits-all MATs”, and said new single-academy trusts should be established and allowed to expand.

It also said some local authorities were “actively hostile” to free schools, and said the DfE should introduce legislation to “compel” councils to set aside land for the schools.

But Bousted said it was “beyond parody” that the NSN should be “riding to the rescue of the free schools project”. She described the charity as “very largely dependent on DfE funding” and led “by a succession of former government staff and Conservative cronies”.

“They need look no further than their Christmas card list for the causes of the problems they seek to solve.”

Lord Agnew, academies minister, said free schools have had a “revolutionary effect” on education.

“It is because of this progress and the incredible impact free schools have had on countless families’ lives that we will not let this programme stall.”