In September 2011, Free Schools were opened across the United Kingdom. Initiated by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, the schools promised an education free from government and local authority control. Gove stated the schools will have the ability to be run by local parents, teachers and surrounding charities in any way they wanted.
However, Andy Slaughter believes this has created a great deal of competition between local schools and Free Schools with some existing schools already feeling threatened.
Slaughter explains how he has been affected an MP for the Hammersmith borough. “A fund was made available from the government to set up these schools and yet all my existing schools have lost literally hundreds of millions of pounds because their capital budgets have been cut to almost nothing. The secondary school I’m a governor of has lost £20 million so have most of the other secondary schools, my own primary schools as well. That seems grossly unfair, that schools who were told they were getting for necessary refurbishment are not getting it in part because the money is going to Free Schools.”
Slaughter has also expressed his frustration over the secrecy regarding where the funding has come from to start the Free Schools initiative.
“My real beef at the moment is that I’ve been using the Freedom of Information Act and asking questions in Parliament, and despite what they say, they are refusing to release any of the details about Free School funding. They are withholding that information.”
Many schools are not only bearing the brunt in financial terms, but also feel they are losing their pupils as Free Schools are not opening in areas where there are a demand. Although the government have insisted they will only up schools where there is a demand for places, Slaughter believes this is simply not true.
“We’re finding they’re [Free Schools] not being set up where there’s a need. For example, we had a brand new academy opening, which is a very popular £25 million school built by the last Labour government, and yet, we’re having another Secondary School set up half a mile away, for which frankly there isn’t the local demand for. So it is not taking its whole intake from the entire of West London.”
This notion of losing the idea of a local education has raised fears that community cohesion will be lost as schools will be able to accept pupils from any part of the capital due to their elimination of the distance requirement. This could result in certain Free Schools creating a social divide as they may attract only one class of pupil as oppose to having a range of pupils from the surrounding area.
Andy Slaughter strongly summarised his feelings on Free Schools as this: “I think the government would like us to think that Free Schools are about spontaneous movements from parents or the local community. In most cases, this is politically driven or corporate driven, and I suspect if they got the chance, profit driven as well. Like many ventures that the Tories do in education to try and undermine comprehensive education, I suspect it [Free Schools] will be a 5 minute wonder.”