How free schools are still failing to address the places crisis

42 schools have opened in areas with "no forecast need" and only 19% of secondary places are in areas of "high or severe" need.

The Department for Education is hailing today's National Audit Office report on free schools as proof that, contrary to what Labour claims, the schools are providing places where they are needed. The study found that 70 per cent of the 114,000 places from open or approved schools are in districts "forecasting some need", with 87 per cent of primary places in those with "high or severe need". 

But what the department doesn't mention is that in many of the areas with the greatest need, the schools are still failing to help. Only 19 per cent of secondary places are in areas of "high or severe" need and 42 schools, costing £241m, have opened in districts "with no forecast need". In addition, the department has received no applications to open primary schools in half of districts with high or severe forecast need by 2015-16. 

In response, a DfE spokesperson has said: "As the NAO highlights in its report, most of our free schools are open in areas facing a need for school places. However, the programme is not our primary response to the shortage of school places. We are spending £5bn on new school places up to 2015, in addition to the money spent on free schools. This is more than double the amount spent by the last government over an equivalent four-year period." 

But it remains doubtful whether this is enough to address the crisis. As Conservative councillor David Simmonds, the chair of the Local Government Association, has warned, almost half of English schools districts will have more primary pupils than places within two years and "the process of opening up much-needed schools is being impaired by a one-size-fits-all approach and in some cases by the presumption in favour of free schools and academies." 

Further evidence that the schools are not meeting demand is supplied by the finding that a quarter of free schools places remain unfilled, with only 30 per cent achieving their planned admission number and 38 per cent falling short by at least one-fifth. But given the dim view most parents take of the institutions, that may not be surprising. A recent but underreported YouGov poll showed that just 27% of the public support the schools, with 47% opposed.

Michael Gove speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May: No “half-in, half-out” Brexit

The Prime Minister is to call her vision an equal partnership. Critics call it a hard Brexit. 

The Prime Minister is to signal Britain is heading for a hard Brexit after declaring she will not seek "anything that leaves us half-in, half-out".

In a major speech, Theresa May is expected to demand an "equal partnership" with the EU on a model unlike any other in existence.

She is to say: “We seek a new and equal partnership – between an independent, self-governing, Global Britain and our friends and allies in the EU.

"Not partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out. We do not seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries. We do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave. 

"The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. My job is to get the right deal for Britain as we do.” 

Advocates of soft Brexit had hoped that the UK might be able to negotiate a deal in which it maintained access to the single market in return for payment, and therefore offer businesses continuity.

Whether or not such a deal can take place depends on whether the UK and the EU find a trade off between controls on freedom of movement and access to the single market. 

But May is to hint that the first may be more important, saying that British voters chose to leave the EU "with their eyes open: accepting the road ahead will be uncertain at times". 

At the same time, the PM will attempt to play down the rift with Europe, and stress shared values instead.

Addressing Europe, she is expected to say: "The decision to leave the EU represents no desire to become more distant to you, our friends and neighbours."

Critics are already accusing May of prioritising immigration over the economy and security. 

Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron said: “You can call this Brexit clean, red, white and blue, or whatever you want.

"But this doesn’t disguise the fact that it will be a destructive, hard Brexit and the consequences will be felt by millions of people through higher prices, greater instability and rising fuel costs."

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.