In a week where Michael Gove's former employers at the Times are in a spot of bother, and Mr. Gove himself isn't immune to criticism, it's high time to have a look at the Free Schools again.  Regular readers from a few months ago may remember the twin identification of West London (where I live) and Suffolk (where I was born, grew up and went to school) as the twin poles of the Free School movement and, true to form, both are still generating interest.

First, and entirely predictably, Toby Young has joined the extremely small band of people (him, Andrew Gilligan, Stephen Pollard, er, anyone else?) who still haven't noticed that the days of the wanker caucus, where a small band of journalists, media executives, think tankers and politicians could lead the dull-witted public by the nose, have ended.

Students of Captain SpudULike will not be surprised by his inability to differentiate 'what the public want' with 'what Toby wants', which in this case is millions of quid for his own school.  Blood and Treasure had a quickie on the subject which had an interesting (if unsubstantiated) comment attached:

I'm told - I have no direct knowledge - both Young and several other of the inner core of the WLFS parents' group present as almost stereotypical potential candidates for private schooling but have too many children, too close together in age, to make it plausible.

Meanwhile, the first Free School to be approved - the former Clare Middle School, now called Stour Valley Community School, is also in the news today:

@SchoolDuggery: I was told yesterday that Stour Valley Community School, the first free school to get funding, has fewer than 40 Y9 pupils on roll for Sept

The point of SVCS is that it arose becase Clare Middle School was closing, due to Suffolk restructuring from three layers of school to two.  This involved closing two middle schools on the county boundary - Clare and Brandon.  Both of these are going the FS route and Clare (on the Suffolk/Essex border) gives us a quick glimpse of the kind of problems this throws up:

Now that Stour Valley Community School has been formally approved to open in September 2011, both Suffolk and Essex County Councils have now made special arrangements for parents to apply for a place for their child at Stour Valley Community School in September 2011.

So, with due regard for single-sourced intelligence, it's possible that the desire to free schools from local authority control has, in this case, resulted in *two* councils having to develop special admissions process, in addition to the school itself being set up under the auspices of the national government in the form of Michael Gove's DfE, at the end of which it's possible only forty pupils are staying on beyond the existing Year 8.  My old West Suffolk Upper School, by contrast, purpose built in the early 1970s, states in its prospectus that there are 1077 pupils in Years 9/10/11, which if they taught me maths correctly is about 360 per year, or 9 times SVCS levels.  Clearly a symphony of bureaucracy is the aim here.

Historical note: I've been back to Hansard to see what the history of education provision in Suffolk was, and it all coalesces around the late 1960s, when London overspill was pushing up the birthrate in Bury St. Edmunds and particularly Haverhill, the nearest large town to Clare.  I hand you over to my first MP, Eldon 'Schmeldon' Griffiths, aka. the Member for Orange County, who asked Mr. Gove's predecessor on the 1st May 1968..

... if he will publish a list of the proposals for new schools and new extensions to schools made to him by the West Suffolk Education Authority in respect of its school-building programme for the years 1968–69, 1969–70 and 1970–71, respectively, indicating the locations of the proposed new buildings involved in each:

(2) if he will list those school building projects recommended by the West Suffolk Education Authority to be started in the years 1968–69, 1969–70 and 1970–71 which he has not approved...

The background here is that Mr. Griffiths was worried about school provision in the rapidly growing towns like Haverhill, full of high-birthrate London overspill families.  He was concerned that parsimonious socialists in Whitehall were depriving his communities of much needed public funds that the local education authority had declared it required.  The government's reply was, basically, 'hard luck':

The cost of the proposals submitted by authorities far exceeded the resources available and it was possible to include in programmes only the most urgent projects submitted for West Suffolk. The resources which could be spared for improvement and replacement of schools were severely limited and were allocated mostly to schools in areas likely to be considered "educational priority areas".

These 'most urgent projects' in West Suffolk included a mere five primary schools, three middle schools and two upper schools, with thousands of places, to be built in about four or five years, including my old upper school, opened in 1973.

Over four decades later the schools are mature and subject to another round of upheaval.  Let's try and untangle what's going on in the Clare/Haverhill area:

We started off with four Y5-Y8 middle schools (Castle Hill, Chalkstone, Clare, Parkway) with 420-480 pupils each, and two Y9-Y11 upper schools in Haverhill (Samuel Ward and Castle Manor) with 600-660 pupils.

The council planned to close all four middle schools and expand the two upper schools to 1050 pupils each by adding Y7 and Y8, along with expanding some of the local primaries to take Y5 and Y6.

Samuel Ward is building new infrastructure for Y7/Y8, doubtless at some cost.  Castle Manor presumably is, if it's adding 400 pupils, but this would be by absorbing one of the closing middle schools.

In the middle of all this comes Mr. Gove, as a result of which Samuel Ward becomes an Academy, which apparently involves setting its own admissions but within the Suffolk admissions system, and Clare Middle School, instead of closing, is being funded to, again, build new capacity:

At a time when communities across the country are experiencing a reduction in local services, our School has secured a significant capital injection to our local economy

How awfully nice for them.  What's the aim here?

Against this backdrop we will be seeking approval by December 2010 from the Secretary of State for Education for our plans to create a new 11-16 school for a minimum of 450 Pupils with the vision to grow to 600.

So, the result is presumably a degree of overprovision, probably around 2500 places for Y7-Y11 in an area which probably has about 2000 pupils in that age range.  We have three secondary schools with three different admissions systems, all being publicly funded to expand.  If this is the efficiency promised by Gove and Young's obsession with competition in education, I'm going with the late 60s central planners, personally.