Education secretary promises more free schools ‘to shake things up’

Janet Downs's picture

Writing in The Times, the new education secretary Gavin Williamson says he wants ‘more free schools to shake things up and do things differently.’   

If this sounds familiar, it is.  In 2011, the then prime minister David Cameron said the same.  He wanted free schools ‘to be the shock troops of innovation in our education system…’

Since then, free schools have opened, not all needed, and a small number have already closed.  But research in 2018 found only one-third of free schools were found to have adopted a ‘novel approach’.   

On 1 August, there were 523 open free schools (including 77 UTCs/studio schools).  Williamson wants more.   And he’s focussing particularly on those offering alternative provision (APUs, also known as PRUs, pupil referral units) or education for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).   

This emphasis will go some way to redress the decline in the number of state-funded PRUs since 2010 when there were 452 such schools.  Government statistics* show there were one hundred fewer (352) in January 2019.

The number of state-funded special schools has remained more-or-less stable in the last nine years.  There were 979 in 2010.  This fell to 961 in 2013.  Numbers have since risen to 986 – seven more than in 2010.  This is despite an increase in demand for high needs special provision.

Williamson’s call for more special schools is welcome but it should be remembered that not all SEND pupils need specialist provision.  Many can be educated in mainstream schools.  This is possible with adequate and appropriate support but analysis published in April found SEND funding had been cut by 17% since 2015.

Any additional funding should be viewed against this backdrop. 

Last December, Theresa May’s government announced extra money for SEND.    But the Local Government Association  said this would ‘only partially address the gap’.     Since then, an extra £700m has been earmarked for SEND pupils but this is still short of the £860m needed for 2019/20 and far short of a ‘potential £1.6 billion by 2021/22.’

Williamson’s Times article coincided with the launch of a review five years after a reformed SEND strategy was expected to offer ‘simpler, improved and consistent help’ for SEND children and young people.  Williamson says ‘there have been problems in delivering the changes... ‘   

Whether Williamson will be around long enough to deal with these problems remains to be seen. 


*See table 1a downloadable here. 

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