What is a free school?
Free schools are funded by the government but are not run by the Local Authority (council). They have more control and autonomy over how they do things. They are ‘all-ability’ schools, so cannot use academic selection processes like a grammar school.
Free schools can:
- set their own pay and conditions for staff
- change the length of school terms and the school day
- they don’t have to follow the national curriculum
Free schools are run on a not-for-profit basis and can be set up by groups like:
- multi academy trusts
- independent schools
- community and faith groups
For groups wishing to set up a free school, they need to apply through the Department for Education (DfE) and all applications to set up a free school must be approved by the Secretary of State for Education.
There are two ways in which groups can open a free school:
- Central Mainstream Free School Programme (no local authority involvement)
- Presumption Route Free Schools (local authority establish need for school and identify location as well as funding construction)
Central Mainstream Free School Programme
Central Government invites applications from groups to establish high quality new schools.
Currently Wave 14 of the Mainstream Free School Programme is open and bids for new free schools in areas where there is a need for additional school places are invited before the closing date on 11 November 2019. It is possible that multiple and competing bids can be submitted and it will be for the Secretary of State to consider and determine whether a bid will be supported. The DfE will announce successful bids in Summer 2020.
As part of the bid submissions groups are required to evidence that they have consulted with the local community about their proposals.
The Department for Education (DfE) can provide the funding for land and construction costs for these free schools. To secure best value for money, where possible the DfE will look to supplement this funding with other contributions. This can include the provision of a site from local authorities or contributions from developers.
Before a school can be built, the usual planning process needs to be followed and a planning application must be submitted to the local council.
We have been made aware of three Academy Trusts that are interested in establishing a free school in the Gloucester area:
- The SGS Academy Trust is sending a proposal for a secondary free school in Kingsway to the Department for Education.
- Cotswold Beacon Academy Trust (CBAT) are also sending in a bid for a secondary free school in the Tuffley area.
- The Crypt Education Trust are submitting a bid for a primary free school on land near the Wheatridge.
The bids from SGS Academy and CBAT are competing bids.
Presumption Route Free Schools
Local authorities (councils) have a legal duty to ensure there are sufficient school places in their area. Where councils identify the need for a new school, they must seek proposals to establish a free school through a presumption process.
If the presumption route process is used, the local authority is responsible for providing or securing the site for the new school and meeting the associated capital build costs, principally using basic need capital funding provided by the DfE and any contributions from housing developers.
In Gloucestershire four schools have been set up through this route including Clearwater Academy, Longford Primary Academy, Huntsgrove Primary Academy and the new secondary school in Cheltenham. We have also had sponsors approved for two other primary schools, one in Stonehouse (Gloucestershire Learning Alliance) and one in Chesterton (Corinium Education Trust). The new SEMH school will also be taking this route and the competition for the sponsor for this school will start in the coming weeks.
As the local authority we must run a ‘competition’ to invite sponsor academy trusts to submit a bid to open and run the new free school commissioned. We consider the bids and make a recommendation to the Secretary of State regarding the preferred sponsor. The final decision rests with the Secretary of State.
The estimated construction cost of providing a new school is as follows:
- 6FE 900 place Secondary School £21 million
- 2FE 420 place Primary School £6.5 million
These costs are construction and fittings only, they do not include the purchase of a site or funding any abnormal costs associated with the site or highways improvements.