Questions About Free Schools
The Free Schools initiative was one of the Conservative Party’s flagship policies before the election. Now that it is in government, it has begun to introduce the policy – and the first Free Schools are scheduled to be opened towards the end of 2011.
But many people remain confused about Free Schools. What are they, who can set one up, and how are they different from state schools?
What are Free Schools?Free Schools are a new initiative designed to tackle what the government considers to be the issue of school availability. As the government sees it, there are communities across the country that feel they do not have the schools that they need in their area.
Their solution is to give local community groups the chance to set up their own schools to address perceived inadequacies. These groups can apply to the Secretary of State for Education for permission to establish a Free School, which will be state funded and must operate a non-selective entrance scheme.
Does it Have to be in a School Building?No. One of the main planks of the Free School proposal is that the school itself does not necessarily have to be in a dedicated building. The government has said it imagines that schools could also be set up in, for example, church halls or community centres.
That is not to say, however, that you couldn’t set one up in a dedicated building, but you would have to be able to find a suitable location and justify the cost.
Who Can Set One Up?In theory, anyone can set up a Free School. Indeed, this is part of the point; the government has said that it wants to give average people (particularly parents) the opportunity to get the schools they want.
In reality, most people simply do not have the time to take on the establishment and running of a school, regardless of the need. This is one of the main problems with the scheme. In these cases, the New Schools Network offers some practical support, and the opportunity to connect with other groups who have existing experience in the field.
What do I Need to Set One Up?A lot of time, and a lot of dedication would be a good start. Setting up a Free School is going to be a long and difficult process, and it is one that the average working person simply will not be able to deal with.
The first practical step is to collect a “petition or declaration” from prospective parents, along with a firm business case demonstrating the necessity for the school and the financial practicalities of running it. In developing your business case you are likely to have to talk to teachers, parents, potential sponsors, universities, and other schools in the area.
The proposals will be considered by the Secretary of State. Again, if you need help developing your business case, you may be able to seek help from the New Schools Network.
Do I Have to Find Teachers?One of the major criticisms of the Free Schools idea is that they will not necessarily have to be staffed by qualified teachers. The government believes that ordinary people may be able to pass on knowledge in specific areas just as well as qualified teachers – although there is, understandably, a lot of controversy surrounding this point.
You should remember, though, that the school will be subject to Ofsted inspections like any other, and it will therefore have to comply with a fairly rigorous set of standards.
How do I Get Funding for it?Free Schools are funded in a similar way to conventional state schools. Broadly speaking, the government stumps up the money for proposals that it accepts.
But that is not to say that you will not have to find additional finance elsewhere. In exactly the same way that some state schools seek financial support from individuals or corporate backers, you might need to find extra cash to make your proposals a reality.
You should remember at all times, though, that Free Schools cannot be run for a profit, and that the group operating them cannot take any money out.