The free school debate

September 14, 2011, 11:58 PM GMT+0

As a new school term gets well underway for parents and children across the country, the debate surrounding ‘free schools’ has split public opinion, our poll has shown, with similar numbers in support as in opposition. The poll also shows that 3 in 5 people would be uninterested in getting involved in the project should a free school be set up in their area, while the country is also split over whether the Government has too much power over the way that schools are run.

  • 38% oppose the creation of free schools, 35% support them and 27% are unsure
  • 62% would not be interested in helping set up and run a local free school, with only 18% willing to help should one open in their area
  • Londoners, however, are the most amenable region, with 27% saying they would be willing to help with a local free school compared to a low of 12% in Scotland

When it comes to the impact of free schools, opinion also looks undecided.

  • 37% think they take funds away from existing schools
  • 31% think free schools increase choice for parents and improve education
  • A sizeable 21% say they didn’t know about this issue

The Government has hailed free schools as means to meet demand for school places across the country whilst also endorsing David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, aiming to further involve local community in Government plans. But while the Coalition Government is championing the 24 free schools opening around the country, the public is split over which groups should hold the most power in the education system.

  • 36% believe central Government has too much power over how schools are run
  • 40% believe it has just the right amount
  • 41% think head teachers do not have enough power
  • While 37% think that they have just the right amount

And predictably, opinions on free schools are strongly split along party lines.

  • 51% of Conservative voters support the creation of free schools compared to 37% of Liberal Democrats
  • 47% of Conservative voters believe free schools will increase choice for parents, compared to 27% of Liberal Democrats

‘Huge waste of public money’

Despite support from some sides, free schools have proven to be a controversial issue in recent years, with concerns arising over the schools’ funding, and what some see as the potential to become elitist institutions, leaving less privileged students, or those with less able families, behind.

General secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Mary Bousted, told the BBC that ‘the free school policy is completely undemocratic and a huge waste of public money, established regardless of need, with contempt for the local community while privileging small sectional interests’. However, Coalition Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has disputed these claims, saying that the schools are not intended to become ‘the preserve of the privileged few’ and ‘will not be run for profit’, while supporters claim that giving power to local figures such as teachers, governors and parents will herald a welcome change to the current structures of local education.

Late last week, Prime Minister David Cameron visited a free school in Norwich, and hit back at critics, saying that ‘those opposing free schools are simply defending the establishment – an establishment that has failed pupils and infuriated parents for too long.’