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Free school controversy

By Tom Bateman
Today programme

Parents and pupils in Clare
Parents in Clare have succeeded in setting up one of the first free schools

The government has given the go-ahead to 16 free schools in England, but some head teachers are concerned about the consequences of the policy.

Crammed into the narrow corridor of a primary school in rural Suffolk, year four pupils are getting ready to march off to their PE lesson.

This is the village of Boxford, and one of the parents here is worried.

"Our children would go immediately from the primary school here which is very good, to the Upper School at Great Cornard," says Sally Connolly, a mother of three.

"The school that they're proposing at Great Cornard is going to be extremely large."

Suffolk County Council is reorganising its education system, scrapping middle schools which are currently attended by children aged 9 to 13.

It means that many existing upper schools will get much bigger, something that concerns Mrs Connolly.

She is now part of a campaign to reopen the current middle school in the nearby village of Stoke-by-Nayland as a Free School for 11 to 16-year-olds.

She and other parents have now submitted the second stage of their application for government funds for a free school to open in 2013.

Privilege concern

Free schools are a flagship part of the government's reforms to education in England. They allow groups of local parents, teachers or charities to establish their own school.

Education Secretary Michael Gove reading for Lia Thomas (left) and Chloe Teggart at the Cuckoo Hall Primary School in Edmonton

Like academies, they'll be outside local authority control and will receive money directly from the Department for Education.

They will have substantial freedom to set their own ethos and subject specialisms, but will not be allowed to make admissions based on selection.

But the policy is causing concern among many in the education system.

Great Cornard Upper School is eight miles from the site of the planned free school at Stoke-by-Nayland.

Head teacher Mike Foley says he is fearful about the impact the free school will have on his intake.

"Our worry is that if a free school happens in Stoke, a part of our catchment area which is more privileged, it will lead to a skewed intake," he says.


"One school will have the privileged children."

He fears that such a policy will mean the intake at his school becomes too heavily skewed towards children from more deprived homes.

"Motivation drops, and aspiration drops as well. In the end that will have an effect on results and it's a downward spiral," he explains.

Opponents of free schools claim they will tend to be located in middle class areas, because only more affluent parents will be motivated to establish them.

It's claimed the schools will suck in the best pupils and siphon off resources, disrupting a strategically planned education system.

Mr Foley is concerned that motivated parents will unintentionally harm the education of less privileged children.

"Their agenda is for their children. They've got a narrow agenda, understandably. It's 'we want a certain school for our children'," he says.

Free opposition

"My job is different. My job is to look at the needs of all children."

One of the 16 free schools to get government approval in England is in the Suffolk town of Clare.

Parents there are reopening the current middle school as a community school for pupils aged 11 and older.

"We are in a rural area. We have a different offering to the larger schools," says Keith Haisman from the Stour Valley Education Trust, who is leading the group of parents.

"We are trying to differentiate ourselves so the parents have choice."

Head teacher David Forrest
Head teacher David Forrest has concerns about the free school policy

But David Forrest, head teacher of nearby Sudbury Upper School, which will lose intake to the new free school in Clare, is concerned about elements of the policy.

"It stops us being able to run a planned education system within an area," he says.

"Any planning that you make to try and improve can simply be undermined by somebody saying 'we as a group don't like this so we'll set up another free school'."

The Department for Education says the policy will not polarise the schools system.

Education Secretary Michael Gove argues that a number of free schools are already being set up by teachers in some of the most deprived areas of England.

He also points to the "pupil premium" which would give extra cash to schools who take students from less privileged homes.

Village issue

Mrs Connolly denies the Stoke-by-Nayland free school would create a middle class enclave.

"We want to ensure that there is education for everybody," she says.

"The whole reason for wanting the school here is to make sure there is rural state education for the children of our villages."

Head teacher Mike Foley
Mike Foley fears a "downward spiral" in results over local free schools

A government spokesperson also said that the process free school applications must go through is "robust" and involves a consultation with surrounding schools.

But head teacher Mike Foley is less than convinced about the consultation process.

He says he became concerned when he saw a press photo of Michael Gove posing alongside the Stoke-by-Nayland free school campaigners.

His school wrote to the Education Secretary to express its dismay at the "triumphalist" picture.

"The Secretary of State in the end is the arbiter. He is the one who will decide where free schools are set up," says Mr Foley.

Opponents of free schools will be concerned about the Education Secretary's ability to remain impartial over the impact of proposed free schools given that he has championed the policy.

The Department for Education says it will "absolutely not" allow inadequate proposals to progress.

"This is about quality, not quantity, and we have been clear that there are no targets," a spokesperson told us.

"Setting up a school is still rightly a robust process which is important to get right."

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