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David Thomas: Ministers must extend the free schools revolution to the alternative provision sector

David Thomas is the headteacher of a secondary school in Norwich, and was awarded an OBE in 2020 for founding Oak National Academy – an online school to support children during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Free schools have been a huge part of the improvement in English education over the past decade. They have shaken up schooling and injected innovation through our education system.

The top free schools have not only benefitted their own children, but children across the country whose teachers have been inspired by what these free schools have achieved.

Whilst free schools have been a huge part of increasing the number of great school places in our country, they have not been able to do this for some of the children who need them most.

Many of the most vulnerable children in the country need a place at a special or alternative provision (AP) school. These schools cater for the children who aren’t able to be educated in a mainstream school – for example, those with significant special educational needs or with behavioural issues.

It can be easy to think of these as peripheral to the system, but they’re not. If we don’t prepare these children for adulthood then the cost to the state is huge. By one estimate, each school year’s worth of excluded children go on to cost the nation £2.1 billion. Not preparing these vulnerable children to be positive members of society lets them down, and costs the taxpayer.

The consequences are felt beyond the individual child too. There is a chronic lack of places in special and AP schools across the country. When a child is not given the place they need, they have to stay in a mainstream school. This is unfair to the child, who needs the right kind of education. It is also unfair on the other children attending that school, as their school now has less capacity to improve at delivering mainstream education.

Where there is a shortage of appropriate school places, the free schools programme should step in. However, it suffers from a major restriction. You can only set up a special or AP free school if the local authority commissions it in advance – and agrees to foot a large part of the bill. This needs to change.

Many free schools have been set up with local authority support, especially in areas where there is a shortage of school places. But would we have had as many innovative schools if they had needed a local authority commission to be able to apply? Of course not. There are many reasons, from the political to the financial, why a local authority might choose not to commission a new free school. It is wrong that these should hamper the education of our most vulnerable children.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic there was a clear shortage of places in special and AP schools. Any headteacher will be able to tell you stories about children who are assessed as needing a specialist place, but who wait years to get one. There is little to no recourse for those parents.

If a parent of a child in mainstream education isn’t satisfied with the education available for their child, they can form a group and set up a free school. They do not have to wait for the local authority to find the funds and the will to commission one. Families of children with special educational needs deserve this opportunity too. Successful special schools and groups of special schools should also be able to expand in areas where they can show there is need.

The same is true in alternative provision. When a child is excluded from school they are at an extremely vulnerable point in their life. They need a great school to get them back on track. Yet many of these children end up on a waiting list for education that takes months to arrive, and is low-quality when it does. We need innovative free schools to develop and spread the best ways of helping these children turn their lives around.

As a country, we have a duty to provide great education to all our children. Free schools are helping us to do that in mainstream. It’s time to remove the barriers to doing that through the rest of the school system too. The next free school round should be open to special and AP free schools, regardless of local authority commission

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