Firms and charities line up to run free schools

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

Image caption, Parents set up free schools but others may run them

Private firms are lining up with parent groups to run the Conservatives' flagship "free schools" in England.

These are the new schools that Education Secretary Michael Gove wants parent or teacher groups to set up and run with public funds.

Some education firms are already working with groups on their applications to set up the new schools.

Others are seeking to get into the market by teaming up with education charities.

The charities themselves are also joining up with parents and teachers to try to establish new schools.

So far, around 60 groups have applied to set up free schools, which are a key policy for the Conservatives' "Big Society" idea.

The government argues they will give parents more choice and help raise standards.

But education commentators have questioned whether parents would have the time or the know-how to actually run them.

The world's largest provider of independent education abroad, Gems, says it is already working with groups on setting set up free schools and academies under the new legislation.

Firms such as Pearson, Serco, Tribal and Nord Anglia are all said to be seeking work in this area, although none would be allowed to make a profit.

Edison Learning is advertising its services as specialists in "schools' operating systems" to parents on its website.

And consultancy firm Cambridge Education is offering on its website, "a complete package of support is available for anyone wanting to set up a free school".

Gems incoming chief executive Zenna Atkins told the BBC News Website: "A significant number of schools have contacted us to talk to us about doing things differently."

She would not give the exact number, but said up to 10 groups had made contact about their free schools plans.

Back of house

A significantly higher number had been in contact over assistance with running academies, she said.

The firm is working very closely with one group that has registered for free school status and submitted its preliminary proposal. But she would not say where it was.

If that is approved, then Gems would work with the group on the detailed plans, she said.

Ms Atkins, who is moving to the firm in September from her post as chairman of Ofsted, added that a lot of big consultancy firms had been offering to help groups set up free schools.

They were offering to carry out their "back of house" functions such as payroll, she said.

Other firms were already working with groups, she said, but some were being a bit "cagey" about their plans.

And Roy Blatchford, head of charity National Education Trust which specialises in school improvement work, said: "We have been approached by a number of different businesses including property companies who are interested in opening a school with an education provider."

"As a charity, we are sticking our toe in the water and our trustees have agreed to us working with groups setting up free schools."

Charities have the advantaged that they can make the application to set up a free school themselves.

'Closely involved'

Chief executive of CfBT education charity Neil McIntosh said it would be submitting an application imminently to set up a free school in Berkshire.

Cfbt is currently working with All Saints Infant School, in west Reading, which wants to expand into a junior school through the free school model.

All in all, it had been talking to six groups, some of whose proposals are quite advanced and some not quite so advanced, he said.

"From time to time, parents' groups will get very closely involved [in running schools] but it's not necessarily going to be the best model," said Mr McIntosh.

He added that the private contractors interested in running free schools would be very big players indeed.

He said firms such as Pearson, Serco, Tribal and Nord Anglia were all seeking work with free school groups.

'Very wary'

He said: "Really the interesting question is whether the free schools can be as cost-effective or not cost-effective than the state sector and I think they can."

The issue of cost is clearly particularly important in the current financial climate.

He added: "There's no incentive to save money in the public sector - but undoubtedly we could cut expenditure without affecting the learning outcomes."

Ms Atkins said: "A lot of the educational offering that parents are going to want is not going to be affordable for the number of pupils that they have got."

But she said large firms, such as hers, would be able to find savings by offering economies , thereby allowing smaller schools to offer things that they would not otherwise be able to afford.

The Department for Education said it had received a number of proposals and that ministers were currently considering these proposals. It plans to publish more detail in the autumn term.

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