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Schools: Free Schools

Volume 765: debated on Monday 26 October 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many free schools at primary and secondary levels were open at the beginning of this school year, how many are expected to open during the 2015-16 school year, and how free schools will be monitored and evaluated.

My Lords, there are 304 open free schools, including 118 primaries, 123 secondaries, 19 special schools and 32 alternative-provision free schools. This figure includes 52 free schools that have opened so far this academic year, incorporating 23 primaries, 15 secondaries, seven special schools and four alternative provision schools. In addition, we expect one further all-through alternative provision school to open this academic year. Free schools are inspected by Ofsted and monitored by departmental educational advisers, the Education Funding Agency and regional schools commissioners.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive response. I return to the issue of monitoring. Will the Minister comment on the recent tables which show that this year the number of year 11 pupils in free schools achieving five A to C grades in GCSE, including English and maths, lagged behind the number in local authority schools by 5%? Would the Minister class those schools as “coasting”?

I would not class them as coasting. It is a very small sample. They are a long way short of coasting. Twenty-six per cent of free schools have been judged outstanding, which makes them by far our highest performing group of non-selective state schools. Free schools are monitored by Ofsted, like all other schools, and the EFA. They have much tighter financial oversight than local authority-maintained schools because they have annually to publish audited independent accounts, and regional schools commissioners also monitor them.

Can my noble friend say what percentage of children entering school have English as their second language?

Across the entire estate, I think the figure is in the teens, but I will write to my noble friend about that.

My Lords, of free schools that provide alternative provision, five have funding of £100,000 per pupil and 18 have £59,000 per pupil. That contrasts with local authority schools, which have only £22,000 per pupil. Has any analysis or evaluation been done about the different provision? Does the Minister think we are getting value for money in the funding of special education and alternative education?

I assure the noble Lord that we are very focused on value for money. Those figures are very deceptive because quite a few pupils in alternative provision are on the register of the school, so it appears as though there are fewer pupils in the alternative provision school. Pupils in alternative provision get much higher funding, as they do in pupil referral units run by local authorities, so the figures are quite confusing.

My Lords, it has been decided that new free schools will now be inspected in their third year of operation rather than in their second, although it is not clear whether that is due to funding cuts to Ofsted or perhaps, given that around 25% of them are deemed to be underperforming, it is to save the DfE from further embarrassment. Will the Minister explain how this new decision will help to ensure that underperforming free schools are identified and their failings addressed as soon as possible?

This is to bring free schools in line with all other new schools, which are inspected in their third year in the same way. Of course, free schools are monitored closely by education advisers in their early years and, as I already said, by the regional schools commissioners.

Is the free schools programme helping to improve social justice and boost social mobility in our most deprived areas?

There is no question that that is the case. About half of free schools are in the most deprived areas in the country. In the last five rounds, 93% of them have been in areas where there was a forecast shortage of places and a large number of our top academy sponsors, who are particularly focused on underprivileged children, have entered the free school movement.

My Lords, the term “free school” obviously implies freedoms that do not apply to other kinds of school. Can the Minister assure the House that free schools do not have the liberty to withhold from their pupils in any circumstances a range of options in the curriculum that would be expected to be offered to children in other types of school? I think, for example, of subjects such as arts and music.

I assure the noble Baroness that all schools are expected to have a broad and balanced curriculum. Certainly on my visits around free schools I see a very wide curriculum. If the noble Baroness would care to accompany me on a number, I am sure I could satisfy her on this point.

I have great interest. It is my job and I am also chairman of an academy chain which has sponsored a free school.