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First group of 24 free schools prepares to open

Education secretary Michael Gove has reached a major milestone in his reform programme after announcing that 24 free schools will open this September. 

The state-funded schools, which have been set up by charities, faith groups, education companies, teachers and parent groups, include 17 primary schools, five secondary schools and two all-age schools. The 24 approvals are out of 323 applications made during the first application window.
The Department for Education (DfE) confirmed that many of the schools will open in temporary accommodation or will require additional building work. It said that because of this, the final capital costs for the majority of the new schools are not yet finalised as contracts for the works have not yet been signed.
But the DfE estimated that the total capital costs for the first 24 free schools will range from £110 million to £130 million. The upper estimate of £130 million is around 2.6% of the department’s capital budget for 2011-12.
Some free schools, such as Batley grammar school in Kirklees, are private schools that are converting to maintained status. Others, like All Saints junior school in Reading, are being set up in existing community facilities on a temporary basis before further arrangements are made.
Meanwhile, Bristol free school, the largest free school to open this year, is being set up by private educational company Education London.
According to DfE statements, the not-for-profit schools aim to add capacity and improve academic performance in areas where there is a shortfall of places or low student achievement. The department reported that half of the 24 schools are located in the most deprived 30% of communities.
Education secretary Michael Gove said: “The most important thing for any parent is to be able to send their child to a good local school, with high standards and strong discipline. That is why we are opening Free Schools across the country. I am delighted to announce that the first 24 will open this year.”
However, a report in the Guardian today suggests Gove may face fresh questions from MPs about how the free schools programme has been funded.
Citing leaked DfE emails, it suggests Gove may have shown a lack of transparency by pushing his free schools policy through the department quickly.
For example, it shows that DfE civil servants were told by a Gove adviser to fast-track a £500,000 grant to the New Schools Network (NSN), a charity providing advice to free school groups, when no other organisation was invited to bid for the work.
Responding to the article, a DfE spokeswoman said the NSN "was best placed to help get the free schools policy off the ground quickly, and to help meet the demand of parents for good, new local schools".
She added that it was “legitimate for government departments to award grants to charities and other organisations in certain circumstances”.

Posted on: 30/08/2011

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