By Claire West
As the new school year kicks off, the Prime Minister and Education Secretary Michael Gove welcomed the 93 new free schools opening their doors this month, bringing the total number of free schools to 174 — more than twice as many as this time last year.
The government is committed to providing all parents with a diverse choice of high-quality local schools. Previously, the freedom to choose has only been available to parents with the money to send their children to independent schools or pay more for a house in the catchment area of a good state school. As well as free schools, 13 studio schools and 12 university technical colleges (UTCs) will also open across the country this month. Together, these new schools will provide young people with the academic and vocational routes that suit them best and will create an education system to compete with the world’s best.
The huge increase in the number of new free schools underlines the desire among teachers, parents, local communities and organisations to set up their own high-quality school.
Three-quarters of the 71 new mainstream free schools are opening in areas with a need for new school places. When full, the 93 free schools will create an extra 46,000 places. All open and currently planned free schools will provide 130,000 new places when they are full. Eight in 10 open mainstream free schools are either in areas with a shortage of places or in deprived areas.
They will continue to open where there is demand from parents, helping to manage the pressure caused by rising birth rates on the school system and giving parents more choice where they are dissatisfied with existing schools.
The Prime Minister said:
Free schools create great local schools for everyone. They are one of the most important reforms to education in this country for a generation, allowing people with a passion for giving children the best start in life to set up schools and making sure teachers in those schools have more freedom to do what they think is best. That means more choice for parents, more school places and a better education for our children. It is reforms like these that will help transform our country, make sure Britain competes in the world, and give everyone the chance, whatever their background, to get on in life.
Education Secretary Michael Gove said:
Free schools are now an integral part of the growing success story of state education in England. They are hugely popular, giving parents greater choice in communities poorly served for generations. Their success reflects incredibly well on the teachers who work in them and the parents who support them.
Free schools are state-funded schools independent of local authority control. They are run by teachers and education groups — not local or central government bureaucrats. They have the freedom to decide the length of the school day and term, the curriculum, and how they reward their teachers and spend their money.
Free schools achieve higher standards and offer a genuine alternative. Three quarters of the first 24 free schools have been rated good or outstanding by Ofsted under its tougher new inspection framework. This compares to just 64% of maintained schools inspected under the same framework.
Free schools have also proved hugely popular with parents. Mainstream free schools open at the start of the last academic year reported an average 3 applications per place. Langley Hall Primary Academy, a free school in Slough, has proven so popular with parents it is doubling its capacity this year.
In England, sponsored academies, which have the same freedoms as free schools, improve at a faster rate than state secondary schools. In 2012, the proportion of pupils who achieved 5 or more GCSEs including English and mathematics rose by 3 percentage points in sponsored academies, compared to 1.5 percentage points in comparable state schools.