The rising demand for school places is on the agenda of all leaders in education. The official estimates from the DfE suggest the school age population will rise by 650,000 to more than 8 million by 2026.
Free schools have been integral in helping meet this rising demand, having created more than 400,000 new school places since 2011. This challenge is also a high priority for the Education Secretary, who recently committed £7 billion of investment for the next decade, and has made assurances that free schools will be central to this.
The latest wave of free schools is continuing to tackle this issue head on. They are going to be targeted in areas of most need; applicants will have to make a compelling case that the new school will fulfil a need for places. This is a vital step towards free schools specifically targeting the areas most in need of school places.
Recently, NSN’s Research and Media Manager, Phil Copple, spoke at an event hosted by Public Policy Exchange that sought to address the issue of school place planning. As the event was represented by delegates from all corners of education, Phil was keen to promote the role free schools can play in meeting this demand, and encourage collaboration between all parts of education.
The key issue which came out of discussions with delegates was that free schools have been effective in meeting this demand. However, for the policy to grow from strength to strength it will require cross collaboration from all corners of education. An emphasis was placed on joined-up thinking between local and central government and free school providers.
Up till now the free school process has predominantly operated through free school providers and central government. Providers apply directly to the DfE, which assesses the application and provides funding and support if approved. This has led to local authorities feeling locked out of the process of setting up new schools, and a perception that the future is out of their hands.
In 2015 the DfE opened the door for local authorities to join the process through local authority presumptions. If a local authority identifies a need for a new school in its area, they can run a competition for proposals to establish a new free school. This has created opportunity for increased central and local government collaboration. Since 2015, 34 open free schools have come through local authority presumptions and 29 more are in pre-opening.
Free schools are meeting the rising demand for school places and offering a great education in places where standards have been too low for too long. The policy was designed to empower communities and will only continue to succeed if we bring together all part of education.
The discussion reassured us that there is an appetite from local authorities to collaborate with free schools. Local authorities are keen for multi-academy trusts to communicate their growth strategy, this way the priorities and MATs can be aligned for the benefit of local educational needs.
We look forward to seeing more free schools build stronger relationships across government and within their community, as ultimately we are all working towards the same goal of creating greater opportunities for future generations.