- In March 2014, the Independent reported that the then Education Secretary Michael Gove had signed off a £45m sixth form free school for 500 students, despite senior DfE officials questioning its value for money.1
- The Harris Westminster Free School opened in September 2014 and is run by the Harris academy chain and the elite Westminster public school. The sponsors claim that they will give preference to pupils on free school meals and those living in deprived areas but the school’s admissions policy shows it is highly academically selective.2
- The school’s cost is around six times the average for establishing a free school and equates to around £90,000 per student. Margaret Hodge, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee described the expenditure as “outrageous”.3
- State sixth forms have endured more than £100m in budget cuts in the last three years – resulting in many having to restrict the courses they can offer. James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association said: “It beggars belief to discover that £45m has been found to establish an institution that will take less than a third of the number of students enrolled in an average sixth-form college.”4
- The NUT has set up a ‘Wrong Priorities’ petition on this issue. To sign the petition go here.
- In December 2013 the National Audit Office (NAO) published a damning report into the free school programme. It found that the DfE had spent £8m of taxpayers’ money to pay off the debts of private schools which had become free schools as well as £15 million to upgrade their facilities and accommodation.5
- In 2013 Michael Gove also authorised a £5 million bail out of a private school as he pushed through controversial plans to allow the school to become an academy. The King's School in Tynemouth North Tyneside was part of the Woodard group of independent schools. The school’s plan to merge with Priory school to form Kings Priory School was approved despite a massive surplus of places in the area. The move, which was opposed by the local council, involved the Government agreeing to pay off the private school’s debt which amounted to £1 million payable within the subsequent year, and a further £4 million over future years.6
- In a speech in February 2014, Michael Gove spoke about the ways in which the academy and free school programme was “starting to erode the boundaries between independent and state” schools. He welcomed the 16 private schools that had converted to free school or academy status and the increasing number of private school sponsors involved in the free school programme. By these means, he said, “England's state schools could become the best in the world”.7
- But the record of these private school conversions and partnerships suggests otherwise. Seven former private schools that have become free schools have been inspected by Ofsted. Of these, five were found to ‘Require Improvement’ at their initial inspection: Batley Grammar, Grindon Hall Christian School, Sandbach School, St Michael's Catholic Secondary School and The Priors School.
- The Hartsbrook E-Act Free School, a small primary school in Tottenham, north London, was opened by the E-Act Academy Chain in September 2012. Highgate School, a local leading independent day school, worked in partnership with the school, providing a part-time Vice-Principal with responsibility for teaching and learning.
- The school received its first Ofsted inspection in January 2014 and was found to be “inadequate” in all four categories.8 Despite its close link with a top public school, Ofsted found that: “The school’s view of teaching is overgenerous because of insufficient focus on the progress pupils make as a result of teaching. Consequently, the school’s leaders have not managed to improve teaching.” The school has since been removed from the E-ACT chain and is managed by The Lion Academies Trust.
- The Constable Education Trust (CET) runs the independent Moat School, a special school for children aged 11-16 with specific learning difficulties (SpLD). CET opened two mainstream primary free schools in the London Boroughs of Westminster and Tower Hamlets in September 2012. Both schools received overall judgements of ‘Requires Improvement’ when they were inspected in early 2014.9 Ofsted commented on the fact that most teachers at CET Primary Tower Hamlets were inexperienced and that “leaders and governors have not done enough to secure good teaching and achievement”. Both schools have now been transferred to other academy trusts.
- Private schools are also receiving Government funding for their involvement in the free school programme. Financial statements for the London Academy of Excellence, a sixth form free school in East London which opened in 2012, show that the private Brighton College was paid £55,964 in project management fees to help establish the college in 2012-13.10
- Wellington Academy opened in 2009. It receives funding and guidance from Wellington College, a £30,000-a-year top independent school. Its Executive Principal is Dr Anthony Seldon, the historian and Tony Blair's biographer, who is also Master of Wellington College. Seldon took over the reins at the academy following what were described as “disastrous” GCSE results in 2013 which forced the academy’s founding head to leave. Its Ofsted inspection in January 2014 found that the academy “Requires Improvement”.11
1 Oliver Wright (29 March 2014), ‘Anger over new £45m free school that may be Britain's most expensive’, The Independent [online]. Available here.
- It becomes ever more apparent that the academy and free school programme is nothing more than an expensive ideological experiment. The obsession with the values and practices of private education, far from raising standards, is robbing state schools of much needed finance and in many cases, failing children and families.
2 Harris Westminster Sixth Form (October 2013) ‘Admissions Policy – Harris Westminster Sixth Form’ [online]. Available here.
3 Wright, ‘Anger over new £45m free school that may be Britain's most expensive’.
4 Richard Garner (30 March 2014), ‘New £45m free school for 500 A-level students ‘beggars belief’, say college leaders’, The Independent [online]. Available here.
5 National Audit Office (December 2013), Establishing Free Schools, London: The Stationery Office. Available here.
6 Warwick Mansell (12 August 2013), ‘Education in brief: private school's £5m debts paid off as it becomes an academy’, The Guardian [online]. Available here.
7 Michael Gove (3 February 2014), ‘Michael Gove’s speech on improving schools – full text and audio’, The Spectator [online]. Available here.
8Ann Debono (March 2014) Inspection report: Hartsbrook E-Act Free School, Ofsted. Available here.
9 CET Tower Hamlets is now called Solebay Primary School and CET Westminster is now called The Minerva Academy.
Adam Higgins (February 2014), Inspection report: CET Primary School Westminster, 21–22 January 2014, Ofsted. Available here; Ann Debono (March 2014), Inspection report: CET Primary School Tower Hamlets, 11−12 February 2014, Ofsted. Available here.
10 London Academy of Excellence (2014), London Academy of Excellence Annual Report and Financial Statements, Year ended 31 August 2013 [online], p. 43. Available here.
11 Jonathan Palk (February 2014), Inspection report: The Wellington Academy, 15–16 January 2014, Ofsted. Available here.