A commitment by the Conservative party to build 100 new free schools a year if it wins the general election only guarantees that a further 17 will open on top of those already planned, Schools Week analysis has revealed.
The party’s manifesto includes a pledge to build at least 100 free schools in every year of the next parliament, which means that 500 will be expected to be built by mid-2022.
However, sources familiar with the workings of the free schools programme say most of these have already been approved.
Several of the most significant pledges in the Conservative manifesto are connected to the creation of new schools. The party wants to lift the ban on new grammar schools and make existing selective institutions, universities and independent schools set up free schools.
But the pledge on the number of free schools, a significant departure from the party’s 2015 manifesto commitment to open 500 free schools before May 2020, does not indicate an appetite for a massive expansion of the programme.
As it stands, 373 approved free school projects are already considered to be “in the pipeline” – approved, but not necessarily with sites or opening dates. Funding for a further 110 free schools, to be opened post-2020, was announced in the spring budget.
This means that there were already plans for a further 483 free schools before the election was called, meaning that the manifesto pledge only guarantees funding for a further 17 institutions.
The wording of the pledge is also significant. A promise to build 100 free schools a year, rather than open 500 by a fixed date, allows the government to hold off on some institutions if there is concern about their readiness or quality, without breaking its pledge.
However, finding sites for new free schools has already proved problematic, with officials sometimes having to pay up to tens of millions of pounds for locations, especially in London.
The pledge also casts doubts over the party’s ability to implement several of its other policies if the minimum of 500 new schools are built.
Of the 127 schools pledged by the Conservatives by 2022 that are not already in the pipeline, between 20 and 25 are expected to be new grammar schools, which can be established through the free schools process once the ban on grammar expansion is overturned.
The party also wants to ensure that at least 100 independent schools set up a new school or sponsor an existing one, and has plans to work with the Independent Schools Council to achieve its goal.
Universities hoping to charge the maximum fees will also have to play their part, sponsoring either free schools or academies in exchange for the right to raise the amount they charge students.