Heads urge support for free schools
A group of 120 head teachers have appealed to all political parties to allow free schools to be set up "wherever parents want them".
In a letter to The Times, the members of the New Schools Network - which promotes independent schools within the state sector - said that they included supporters of all parties and were driven not by political ideology but by a "common cause" to ensure all children have access to good education.
They said: "By responding to local demand we are providing new, much needed school places; raising standards; and offering parents and pupils a new choice. We call on all parties to continue to allow free schools to be set up in the future - wherever parents want them - because they are helping to raise standards, especially for those most in need."
The letter said that 70% of free schools inspected so far by Ofsted had been judged good or better, with a higher proportion than the national average rated "outstanding".
Conservative Education Secretary Nicky Morgan welcomed the letter, and said that existing free schools were under threat from a Labour government after the party said it would end the programme, which allows groups including charities, teachers or parents to set up new schools independent of local authority control if they can show they are wanted by the community.
She has accused shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt of planning to sack 17,000 teachers after he said that those who were not qualified or working towards a teaching qualification by the end of the next parliament did not "deserve to be in the classroom".
But Mr Hunt dismissed her comments as "nonsense", insisting that Labour would not close existing free schools but would direct funding towards reducing class sizes in areas of greatest overcrowding.
Conservative education secretaries have approved 400 new free schools over the past five years, and the party manifesto promises at least 500 more - resulting in 270,000 new school places - if they win the May 7 General Election.
By contrast, Labour promises to end the free schools programme, which its manifesto describes as "wasteful and poorly-performing" in order to switch resources to areas where school places are in shortest supply.
Liberal Democrats say they will only fund new mainstream schools in areas where school places are needed and repeal the rule that all new state funded schools must be free schools or academies.
Ms Morgan said: "The Labour Party are once again not backing parents. Across the country new free schools are transforming young people's life chances.
"Ed Miliband, propped up by the SNP, would put these excellent schools at risk of closure, deny parents the opportunity to demand more for their children and - as Tristram Hunt admitted this week - threaten 17,000 teachers with the sack.
"'Labour's chaotic approach to education would reverse all of the progress we've made to raise standards, trust teachers and empower parents. The Conservative Party are the only party committed to securing the future of the free schools programme to guarantee every young person the best start in life."
Mr Hunt retorted: "This is complete nonsense - Labour will not close existing free schools.
"What this represents is another desperate attempt from the Tories to distract from their record of failure. Their free schools programme is damaging standards and wasting money which would be better spent capping infant class sizes at 30.
"Labour has a better plan. We will end the Tories' flawed free schools programme, make sure all teachers are qualified and cap class sizes for five, six and seven year-olds at 30."