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The coalition’s free schools dilemma

Ministers can’t keep costs down, keep the profiteers out <em>and</em> get the revolutionary programm

The government's free schools programme has started with a whimper. Not so long ago, ministers were talking of new schools teaching as many as 220,000 students. Actual number of new schools now likely to open their doors this September: 16.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, denies that this is a disappointment. The programme was always going to start slowly, he says. Free schools are meant to snowball, with increasing numbers opening in each year between now and the election. Except . . . it's not clear that's what is going to happen at all. If something doesn't change, in fact, free schools are always going to remain a sideshow. And no one in government seems sure what to do about it.

It all comes down to buildings – or rather, the money to pay for them. The groups trying to set up free schools are for the most part composed of parents or teachers. They don't generally have a few million quid lying about with which to build a new school. This, the wonks have always said, doesn't really matter. There is no reason new schools need own a building: renting one is quite sufficient. And where there are empty classrooms in existing schools, well, why not let new schools borrow them and pay for the privilege?

The problem is, neither of these things actually seems to work. Free-school groups don't have a credit history, so no one will lease them a building. (The government has said it will guarantee such leases, but it is yet to put its money where its mouth is.) And, unsurprisingly, neither free schools nor existing comprehensives seem all that keen on shacking up together.

So, the first generation of new free schools look like it is mostly going to be set up in buildings specially purchased for the purpose, using government money. And Partnerships for Schools, a quango that until recently seemed destined for the scrapheap, has been given the job of finding them.

The impression those close to the programme give is one of blind panic, with PfS being mandated to do something, anything, to make sure the first new schools can open on schedule.

This is all fine when there are only a few projects in the pipeline. But no one thinks it'll work once there are hundreds. Apart from anything else, it's too expensive. Back in February, a BBC investigation found that one free school had been promised £15m for its new building. You don't have to be an accountant to see that the £100m set aside for the programme isn't going to go very far.

There is another option: allowing free schools to make a profit. If private companies were allowed to make money from state schools, they would have an incentive to invest their own capital. It's this that allowed the free school programme to balloon in Sweden. The British government, though, isn't going to let that happen. Even before last year's election, the Tories weren't keen on the message it sends. With the Liberal Democrats to keep happy, too, profit-making schools are now seen as a complete non-starter.

The Department for Education is trying to fudge this a little by making it harder for free school projects to qualify for government assistance. This will likely mean a shift in type of groups promoting schools, from parent and teacher groups, which can't afford buildings, to big academy chains, which can. That will make it easier for those schools that do qualify to open their doors. But it also represents a quiet acceptance that Gove's original vision, of a parent-led revolution, is never going to fly.

The government wants three things: to create enough new schools to shake up state education; to keep the profiteers out; and to keep the cost to the taxpayer down. But it can't win on all three fronts. One of them is going to have to give. And right now, it looks like the revolution will be the one to get tossed aside.

Jonn Elledge is a journalist covering politics and the public sector. He is currently editor of EducationInvestor magazine.