New College Doncaster, a sixth form free school that hopes to open in 2016, told potential pupils on its website: ‘if you are predicted to achieve more than 5 A grades in your GCSEs, we will offer you the opportunity to receive £500 and a place in our Excellence Academy to support your post-16 education.’ The cash, to be paid on enrolment, would come from public funds. There isn't a pressing need for a new sixth-form college in Doncaster, and a free school needs signatures from 1000 parents before it can open. Poaching good pupils with cash is an easy way to boost support, and there's nothing to stop the school spending money this way. Still, it’s come in for criticism: the editor of Academies Week said it was ‘at best questionable, but at worst it’s an uncosted bribe’. The announcement (along with everything else) has since been removed from the New College Doncaster website, which is ‘currently undergoing maintenance’.
Local authority schools will find their intake skewed and their results falling if pupils with good grades are lured away with cash offers. It will also exacerbate social segregation in schools: the link between better exam grades and wealth is well documented. The National Union of Teachers has already raised concerns about the social intake of free schools, which accept significantly fewer pupils eligible for free school meals.
At the end of last month, the Department for Education released 80 ‘impact statements’ for free schools that opened in 2014. According to the DfE, 70 per cent of free schools that have opened since 2010 have been in areas where there is a ‘pressing need’ for new school places; this means that 30 per cent of them are in places without any pressing need, and the education budget is being spent on creating surplus school places. Harris Westminster Sixth Form, which opened in September at a cost of £45 million, has had a 'high impact' on the 'financial viability' of three nearby state schools, and a ‘moderate’ impact on six more. The report says that ‘any movement of pupils to the free school is likely to affect the schools’ financial viability’. For many of them, the future is shaky: their Ofsted ratings vary from ‘outstanding’ to ‘requires improvement’ and surplus places are bad news for balance sheets.