One safe prediction for 2017 is that there will be a big expansion in the number of free schools. At present there are 431 of them, with another 238 classified as “in the pipeline”. There is a target to have 500 new free schools opening in this Parliament. Often Labour councils have given up their opposition to the process.
Many of the schools are mainstream schools with a simple mission to provide an excellent general education. Nothing wrong with that. They are finding no shortage of demand – either because they are opening where there is a shortage of school places or because there are plenty of surplus places at bad schools.
But a particular merit of the programme is the scope it gives for innovation. So many of the schools have something distinctive to offer.
Among the beneficiaries are children with autism. They have been routinely failed by the “system”. Often the doctrine of inclusive education has let them down.
Schools Week reports:
“Of the 44 special needs free schools set to open or already opened in the past five years, 21 (48 per cent) primarily or solely focused on autism, according to figures from the New Schools Network, a charity that helps groups to open new schools.
“A further eight of the 44 schools also catered for pupils with autism.”
Barry Payne is the chairman of the Wherry School Trust, which is opening an autism-specific school in Norfolk in September. He says:
“We talk about inclusion, and if everyone had the funds, you could produce the ideal school with all the facets to allow an autistic child to thrive. But what actually happens with limited funds is we try to fit them into the system and they suffer.
“I am fed up with turning away children from our complex-needs special school who are able, but autistic. Many have been excluded or are out of school and being home-schooled.”
Other schools offer a flexible approach which they believe suits some children, the report adds:
“Ed Archer, a director at Ambitious About Autism, a charity that helps to run the Autism Schools multi-academy trust, said the Rise school in west London, which caters for autistic pupils, shared its campus with mainstream secondary Springwest academy.
“This enables pupils to access learning and social opportunities alongside their mainstream peers, whist receiving the specialist support they need.”
“Angela O’Rourke, principal of Endeavour academy in Oxford, an oversubscribed autism special school for pupils aged 9 to 19, said access to mainstream settings would suit some young people, but knowledgeable staff and smaller numbers of pupils in specialist schools allowed for tailored timetables.”
Another report suggests that children who were previously misdiagnosed as having “behavioural needs” were in fact autistic. This has caused an increase in demand.
The Department of Education highlights the Cumbria Academy for Autism “a new special school – led by a group of local parents of autistic children. It will have a strong focus on the development of life and vocational skills alongside academic learning and will help ensure more local children with autism get the specialist help and support they deserve.”
Providing a better education for autistic children is just one example, albeit an important one, of what free schools are achieving. Children are not all the same. A variety of schools are needed for them to all have a chance to flourish.