Writing for The Daily Telegraph, Alan Judd draws on his experience working with Education Secretary Michael Gove to evaluate free school applications to explain what is holding back the growth of these academies in Britain. Although there are stories of free schools trying, and failing, to overcome opposition from local governments and educational bureaucracy, most never get approval for more practical and prosaic reasons.
Judd tells the story of a school that made it almost all the way through the process only to have the proposed site for the academy sold off from under them by the local authority that took a strong dislike to the idea of a free school operating in its district. Likewise, many people who are looking to open a school are facing down criticism from teachers unions and other members of the education establishment desperate to maintain the status quo.
Surprisingly, however, such stories are rarities. Most schools don't open for the simple reason that the people who wish to run them don't fully understand what it means to run a school.
The most common cause is that the applicants simply haven't thought through how the school is to be set up and run, what it will teach, whether there's a need for it, what its catchment area will be, and how it can be financially sustained. Virtually all applicants expect to recruit "outstanding" headteachers and staff, but not all consider where these people are to come from and what will attract them to the school. Getting this right takes far more energy and time than most people realise.
Many supporters of free schools take the government to task for setting the bar too high for these academies, but Judd disagrees. Lowering the standards by which free schools are judged would be a disservice to potential students, as the idea of school choice is not to just provide alternatives which are no better than the local state schools. With a significant amount of public money on the line, free schools need to be superior to traditional schools in order to make the expenditure worthwhile.
About a third of schools to win approval this year are so-called "faith schools." While some people protest against any public money being spent on religious-themed schools, for the most part, says Judd, the argument seeks to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Faith-based free schools must still meet the same academic requirements as secular schools and are not allowed to practice religious discrimination when selecting students. To ban such schools would be to violate the principal of toleration long held sacred in Britain.
The issues only arise when the principles of the faith start to play too big a role in how the school is run.
The trouble is, as always, when it's taken to extremes, whether it's evangelical Christians, totalitarian Muslims or segregationist Jews. Such applications need careful vetting, not because there shouldn't be far-out religious and ideological beliefs, but because the taxpayer shouldn't pay to propagate them – and because children should be able to participate in a wider society without having their horizons narrowed by fundamentalism.