On Monday (March 9), prime minister David Cameron announced the approval of 49 new free schools, bringing the total number approved during this Parliament to 408 – 255 of these are currently open.
The government says that the schools have created more than 230,000 school places so far and that more than two-thirds are rated good or outstanding.
However, opposition groups, including teaching unions, say that the policy has diverted funds into a small number of schools and has prevented local authorities from opening schools where they are most needed.
The government has allocated £1.7 billion of capital funding for free schools up to 2014/15, which unions point out is a third of the total £5.3 billion allocated for creating new school places in England as a whole.
The government has also faced criticism after the high-profile failure of the Durham Free School, which was closed after just 18 months.
Despite this, after confirming the 49 newly approved schools in a speech in London, Mr Cameron also unveiled his ambition to open a further 500 schools if his party wins May’s General Election.
Mr Cameron said: “Free schools set up by teachers, parents and community groups are not only outperforming other schools, but they are raising the performance of those around them, meaning more opportunities for children to learn the skills they need to get on in life.
“These new schools are an important part of our plan to improve education by raising standards and restoring discipline so our children can compete with the world’s best and enjoy a better future.”
However, Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said it would be “scandalous” to pour millions of pounds into free schools when also planning even deeper cuts to education after the election.
She added: “There is no evidence that structural change raises educational standards.”
The Anti-Academies Alliance campaign group also questioned the government’s justification.
National secretary Alasdair Smith said: “Not surprisingly the free schools policy has already failed to deliver school improvements.
“Some free schools have done well. But others have failed spectacularly. But the crucial question is how – in a time of cuts and austerity – can government justify spending money so randomly?
“Free schools may or may not work. Some free schools may or may not open in areas of need. The allocation of resources is entirely random as it is based on the wishes of a small number of parents or businesses.”