Essex: Teachers fear all new schools could be free schools

Free school fears in Essex.

Free school fears in Essex.

Teachers have raised fears about proposals from County Hall that all new schools in Essex could be free schools.

A draft policy from Essex County Council (ECC) would make free schools the preferred means of addressing a shortage of school places in any area.

The policy plans have attracted strong opposition from the National Union of Teachers (NUT).

Free schools have proved controversial over concerns they do not need to employ qualified teachers, are not bound by national agreements on staff pay, and can set their own curriculum.

In a report ECC recognises there is a risk with free schools as the authority “may not have any influence over the educational provider or the curriculum offer [and] admissions may mean that places are not meeting basic need”.

However free schools are preferred as it results in no or lower construction and set-up costs for authority, unlike with academies.

Jean Quinn, spokesman for the Colchester and North East Essex NUT branch, said: “Whenever a free school pops up they can take children away from other schools, which is not a good idea. We don’t think education is a market place.

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“The county council will lose control over the curriculum, and it is free schools in other parts of the country causing concerns about their religious make up and so on.

“This is all about cost-cutting, and while ECC needs to save money this is definitely a step too far and the authority is shirking its responsibility. What should happen is if there is a need for a school the government should provide money to build another one.”

Mrs Quinn added that by encouraging free schools to set up the county council could be storing up problems for the future if further expansion was needed.

Jerry Glazier, national executive member of the NUT and Essex branch secretary, added: “We are particularly concerned about free schools being created in inadequate buildings, such as police stations, and warehouses. We think they are inappropriate for education and we should have the very best physical environment for children to learn in.

“I think it is a shame the authority is not looking for more imaginative ways to expand schools.”

Two new schools being built in Colchester, in Braiswick and at Severall’s, are both set to be academies with the construction costs being met by ECC.

The policy is set to be debated and approved by senior councillors at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Ray Gooding, county councillor for education, said: “We are supportive of the government’s free schools initiative, which helps ensure sufficient school places are available across the county.”