Free schools ‘creaking’ property search system should be given to professionals, says charity boss

Free schools ‘creaking’ property search system should be given to professionals, says charity boss

The government should consider handing over responsibility for finding new school sites to property companies, the head of a charity that supports proposed free schools has said.

Writing exclusively for Academies Week, Natalie Evans (see page 8), director of the New Schools Network, called on the government to look into alternatives to the “creaking” system in place now.

“A process that might have worked for a couple of dozen free schools is creaking at the seams now that there are regularly 100 approved free schools working their way through the system at any one time,” she wrote.

Ms Evans said that “recruiting armies of specialists to join the Education Funding Agency is not the answer”.

Instead, property firms could be contracted on a regional basis, allowing them to use their knowledge of local property markets to find suitable buildings for new schools.

Finding accommodation has proven to be a stumbling block for a number of free school groups and has led to at least four free schools announcing over the summer that they would be delaying planned September 2014 openings by a year.

Academies Week also reported online last week that a property (pictured) was bought by the Education Funding Agency for £1.2m to be used as a free school – but may now not be used after protests from local residents.

Ms Evans said that finding a suitable site represented the “biggest challenge” for free school groups, and urged the government to draw lessons from this.

Ms Evans also said that difficulties finding buildings could have a “huge” knock-on effect on schools even after they opened.

“Understandably, free schools that haven’t been able to firm up their site until late spring ­— or worse, in some cases, as late as the summer — have often found they are under roll for their first year.”

While this was often corrected in the second or third year of operation, she said: “It needn’t, and shouldn’t, be like this.”

Ms Evans also called on the government “to be smarter about the publicly-owned space that already exists” and to make better use of spare space in existing schools.

She said that, in some cases, new schools could open in existing secondaries that are under-roll.

Also that “government should be buying up property and sites in areas where there is an absolute shortage of school places, either existing or projected,” she said.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We always seek to buy new school sites in areas where demand is high and will continue to utilise unused space in secondary schools as temporary free school sites, where possible.

“We frequently use local contractors or construction companies to secure a site where it represents the best value for the taxpayer. However, if that is not possible we will use our own agents.”

Picture: The £1.2m property bought by the DfE, as advertised by Zoopla