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PM vows hundreds more free schools

A Tory government will open hundreds of new free schools across England by 2020 under a major expansion of the policy, David Cameron declared today.

The plan to open at least 500 of the schools, which can be set up by community groups including parents, charities or teachers, will mean an extra 270,000 places at the institutions which were introduced as part of former education secretary Michael Gove's reforms.

But Liberal Democrats said that the plans would blow a £4 billion hole in the school buildings budget and jeopardise efforts to ensure there were enough school places for children.

Mr Cameron's plans for a major extension of the policy if he remains in Number 10 came as the Government announced that 49 more free schools have been given the green light in the final wave of approvals before the election.

In a speech at a school in west London, the Prime Minister hailed the free school initiative as "the most successful schools programme in recent British history".

Mr Cameron said: " If you vote Conservative, you will see the continuation of the free schools programme at the rate you've seen in the last three years.

"That means, over the next Parliament, we hope to open at least 500 new free schools, resulting in 270,000 new school places.

"Remember - we're the only party that is committed to this. The only party that's opening up the education system so we can get more good places for your children.

"And isn't that what every parent wants - a great education for their child? You deserve the security of knowing your child is getting just that. And with the Conservatives you should expect nothing less."

The announcement that 49 more schools have been given the go-ahead means more than 400 have already been approved under the coalition Government.

Labour has criticised the free schools policy, claiming it can lead to money being channelled to areas where there is a surplus of school places instead of being targeted at areas where classes are overcrowded.

Mr Cameron's plans for an expansion of free schools came as a report by the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange claimed they are raising standards for all pupils in areas where they open, even for children who do not attend them.

The report suggested that the competitive effect created by a free school leads to improved academic standards in nearby under-performing schools.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said the free schools programme was a "huge success story" and would "continue to expand".

"We know from our own evidence that 72% of free school heads say that they are having a positive impact on local schools in their area, they are driving up standards and they are giving parents more choice about having a great local school in their area," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"These are schools where the money comes directly from the department to the schools, where it is run by those who know the children best, who know education best. I think that is very important."

Ms Morgan played down suggestions that many schools were not full as they were being built in areas that already had enough places for pupils.

Some 90% of the schools approved were in locations where there was a lack of provision, she said.

She also insisted she could rule out a Tory government allowing free schools to make a profit.

"Yes, I can. I think having profit in education is something that would make me feel very uncomfortable," she said.

Liberal Democrat schools minister David Laws said: "Tory plans to build 500 new free schools would blow a giant £4 billion hole in the school buildings budget.

"This would condemn thousands more children to inadequate and crumbling classrooms and jeopardise our efforts to ensure there are enough school places.

"The Tories have already set out plans to decimate budgets for schools, nurseries and colleges - now they are admitting capital budgets would be under attack under a majority Conservative government as well.

"You simply can't build a world-class system of education unless it is properly funded. We need to protect education budgets in real terms and make sure all new schools are built in the areas where they are needed."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union, said: "It is scandalous that in the context where the Conservative Party is proposing even deeper cuts to funding post the General Election, it still plans to pour millions of pounds into free schools.

"There is no evidence that structural change raises educational standards."

The general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), Mary Bousted, said Mr Cameron's announcement was "worrying for parents and taxpayers" and that Policy Exchange's evidence for the benefits of free schools were "paper thin".

"The report's conclusion that 'free schools are raising standards for other pupils across the local community' is demolished by its own evidence that standards fall in the majority of established schools when free schools open in their local area," said Dr Bousted.

"But there are more fundamental problems with the Conservatives' free schools policy. Parents will be concerned that the free school programme will not provide sufficient school places for the 18% increase in the number of primary pupils in the next eight years.

"Taxpayers will be concerned that the DfE has had its accounts 'qualified' by the National Audit Office because it is unable to adequately account for academy and free school finances."

UKIP deputy leader and education spokesman Paul Nuttall said: " This proposed expansion is being herald as providing parents with 'a real choice.'

"But a real choice would be allowing grammar schools to be opened. They provide a level playing field for all children, regardless of background, and give them the best chances in life."

Taking questions from the audience, Mr Cameron was asked about comments he made in 2007 that a "pledge to build more grammar schools would be an electoral albatross".

He insisted: "I have never said that grammar schools are an albatross, grammar schools are good schools and I like good schools. I want there to be good schools for people to send their children to.

"What I've said about grammar schools is, like other schools that are good, if they want to expand they should be able to expand. I have been very consistent about that."

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