BBC London News ran an interesting piece about free schools yesterday, focusing upon Toby Young’s free school, the West London Free School, and then looking more broadly at the practical problems free schools are encountering in the capital. Even at WLFS, it’s clear from Toby Young’s comments that it’s been a real struggle to get the show on the road, with volunteers spending hours of their time every week helping out, and, as the headteacher points out, wealthy friends providing large sums to do things like provide a library. Setting up a school isn’t an easy thing to do! They don’t just sprout up out of nowhere in the way Michael Gove first envisioned. It’s clear that the central problem in London is that finding a suitable venue is the biggest obstacle, with a report this April revealing that half of the 70 approved free schools have not found a site. And then, as I point out in the report, schools which do have a site don’t really have suitable accommodation for a school, with free schools like the Wapping High School having to settle for an office block, and others like Canary Wharf College being situated in an old warehouse. Even at WLFS, one has to query whether it will be able to cope when it’s full; the site looks quite small to me.
The trouble is that, as could have easily been seen years ago, and has been much said on this site, setting up a new school needs careful planning and is best done by local authorities who know much better than bureaucrats in Whitehall, or pushy parents, where best to set up a school. It’s actually quite frankly ridiculous that London mandarins are supervising the setting up of schools hundreds of miles away, when there’s a ready-made structure in the form of the LA there which could much better do it. We know that we’re going to need to have many more school places in the coming years and that the free schools movement just isn’t going to satisfy that demand; it’s a tiny but very expensive movement, set to cost billions yet educating less than 1% of the school population. As a matter of great urgency, Gove needs to bring local authorities back into the process so that they can expand existing provision where it is needed, or set up schools where there’s going to be genuine demand. Local authorities have over a 100 years experience in setting up schools; until a couple of years ago, they were the institutions that did it. Removing them out of the equation is proving a costly disaster.