Brand free schools as vehicles for social justice: tired idea tried before

Janet Downs's picture

'We’ve got a branding problem with the free schools programme,’ Unity Howard, the director of the New Schools Network, told a Conservative Conference fringe meeting, Schools Week reports. 

It’s unclear how the NSN director came to the conclusion that free schools need an image makeover.  Successive education secretaries have hyped free schools ever since they began.  Schools minister Nick Gibb was at it again last week. 

Notwithstanding the relentless propaganda flooding from the Department of Education for years, Howard thinks free schools have an image problem.  The way to overcome this, she suggested, was for free schools to be promoted as a ‘vehicle for social justice’ rather than a route for opening new schools.

The idea that free schools are fighters for social justice isn’t a new idea.  It’s been tried before.

In 2015, Nicky Morgan’s first press release as education secretary spewed out the usual free school propaganda.   ‘Free schools are the “modern engines of social justice” helping “break the cycle of disadvantage’, she said.

In September 2011, education secretary Michael Gove wrote in the Evening Standard that those who set up free schools were ‘crusaders for social justice’*.

It’s been eight years since it was first claimed that free schools were more concerned with social justice than other schools.   Now it’s resurfaced as a supposedly Unique Selling Point.

Local authorities wanting to set up new schools to meet a need for places or ‘diverse provision’ are already subject to the free school presumption.    This, it appears, is not enough for the New Schools Network.   It wants to highlight the idea that free schools are about ‘choice’.   But, as already, noted, the free school presumption allows for this although LAs may be reluctant to request a new school merely to create more local choice.

Creating new schools in the name of choice where places are not needed is wasteful and threatens the viability of established neighbouring schools.  


*Two of Gove’s three named ‘crusaders’ have since been discredited.  One, Sajid Hussain Raza, has been imprisoned for defrauding the DfE.


CORRECTION 2 October 08.09:  The sentence 'It’s been eight years since it was first claimed that free schools, and chiefly free schools, were concerned with social justice' has been changed to make the meaning clearer.

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