Free school head checks scaled back, documents show
- 24 October 2013
- From the section Education & Family
Checks on inexperienced staff who want to be head teachers at free schools have been scrapped, despite warnings from civil servants.
Candidates without headship experience had been required to attend assessment centres to ensure they were "capable" of "setting up and running" a school.
It comes as Nick Clegg says all schools should employ qualified teachers - free schools can employ unqualified staff.
The government insists it closely monitors all head teacher appointments.
But a leaked Department for Education document, seen by the BBC and the Guardian, reveals that civil servants were concerned that a lack of checks may lead to unsuitable candidates, referred to as principal designates, being appointed to run schools.
It says: "Without the Principal Designate Assessment Centres some free school projects may appoint inexperienced principal designates who are not suitable which would significantly undermine the success of the school."
Free schools, like academies, are different from regular state schools because they are allowed to hire unqualified teachers. (Independent schools can do this too.)
Nonetheless the paper shows that ministers, including Secretary of State Michael Gove and David Laws, approved the scrapping of the requirement to attend assessment centres in February this year.
They also approved a move to allow free school trusts to arrange their own pre-registration checks with Ofsted.
These checks focus mainly on the safety of the building in which the school is to be run, and verify that child protection protocols, for example, have been met.
It is the only check that the education inspectorate makes on free schools before they open and is particularly important as free schools are not monitored by local authorities, but are funded with taxpayers' money.
After that initial check, Ofsted visit free schools within two years of them opening, as with all new schools.
Civil servants writing the document, warn that groups may not arrange a "timely inspection when left to their own devices" and issues may be identified "that can't be resolved ahead of opening".
This could lead to the schools not being legally ready to open as scheduled, the paper says.
With free schools increasingly appearing on local authority school application forms, it could mean some parents who have picked the school for their child end up severely inconvenienced.
Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw has stressed the need for good school leadership and for teachers who are up to the job.
And Mr Gove has reduced the time it takes for school management to sack teachers who are not performing well enough.
The scaling back of checks is part of departmental plans to save almost a third of its budget for free schools.
However, the document also reveals that at the same time the DfE is planning to save 15% from its young people's and maintained schools groups budget "so that its increasing stock of academies and free schools can be managed".
At the same time it is reducing the "financial analysis in support of the free school programme", the document shows.
The paper warns: "The risk is that free school proposals will not be subject to financial scrutiny."
As part of this the funding, allocation and payment systems are being switched from a face-to-face contact to a more web-based "self-service" system.
The revelations come as a number of problems have been emerging at some free schools in recent weeks and months.
Two schools, including the Al-Madinah faith school in Derby, were put into special measures to bring them up to scratch. And an unqualified head teacher stepped down from a free school in central London amid claims the governors may have regretted appointing an unqualified candidate.
The Department for Education insists free schools are raising standards and said: "Assessment centres did not add value to the process. We undertake due diligence checks and closely monitor all proposed head teacher appointments - including having a representative on the recruitment panel in many cases."
A spokesman said: "We have achieved this while maintaining proper scrutiny of free school applications and any suggestion that the process has been weakened is false.
"Financial scrutiny of free school applications continues to be carried out by trained DfE staff with advice from financial experts. This allows a better overview of the whole application and approval process."
Labour's shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan has now written to Mr Gove calling for him to publish the proposals for savings on free schools in full.
He said: "Labour has long warned of the dangers of the free schools programme such as the lack of adequate oversight; the use of unqualified teachers; and their prioritisation ahead of addressing areas that desperately need new school places."
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "We are clear that head teachers need to have qualified teacher status no matter what the structure of the school. Teaching is a profession with an academic and theoretical foundation as well as the skills and craft gained through experience.
"Parents are right to expect their child's teachers will be qualified as an assurance of their ability. Heads also value qualifications when recruiting. This is why we have welcomed Nick Clegg's acknowledgement today that teaching is a skilled profession."