schoolSo now it’s official: of the 323 free school proposals received by the DfE as of 11th February, 282 were turned down. Less than 50 were given an amber light. It looks likely that roughly ten will open their gates in September. The century of civil servants seconded to process applications can breathe a sigh of relief and go back to whatever it was they were doing before they were so rudely interrupted, for it’s unlikely under the strictures of the new applications process that for 2012 there will be anything like the volume of the first tranche.

With the programme’s capital allocation for the first two years long since exhausted, and the government reluctant to enlist the help of SMBs and private equity backed chains, fewer of these proposals for 2012 can realistically be expected to make it through its new competitive tendering stage. While the Chancellor’s Budget Day announcement that the proposed reforms to local planning process weren’t quite dead in the water offers a glimmer of hope on the horizon, the free school initiative nevertheless seems already to have become the ‘niche programme’ that Rachel Wolf feared it might.

Much as we might wish to think otherwise, this has serious implications for the government’s wider schools reform platform: most especially in respect of its hopes of efficiency gains through school closure. The idea was that by freeing up new school supply, while at the same time rationalising existing management structures through Academy expansion, the government might also be enabled to tackle more proactively the problem of persistent under-performance, at its most acute in areas where deprivation is greatest. But without new schools coming on stream in numbers, the threat of closure rings hollow, and one of the most important mechanisms for turning around these schools doesn’t work as it should. [Continue reading]