Groups in the Bradford area are leading the way in the drive to open ‘free schools’ – with one of the highest number of applications in England.

There have been 24 bids to run schools free from local authority influence since 2010, in Bradford (16), Calderdale (four) and Kirklees (four).

But seven of the applications – almost one-third – came from independent schools hoping to axe fees and receive government cash to operate instead.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has promoted the policy as the chance for parents and teachers to set up new schools, where standards are low.

Some critics also leapt on the revelation that 132 of the 517 applications in the past two years have come from religious groups. However, no recent applications in Bradford, Calderdale or Kirklees were from religious organisations. Such information was not provided for the first wave in 2010.

Councillor Ralph Berry, Bradford Council’s executive member for education, said he was “quite cynical” about free schools – but prepared to work with the good ones. He suggested Bradford’s growing population explained the spike in applications, saying: “People think rising school rolls make this a good place to open a free school.

“I’m quite cynical about it, because some are a waste of public money, but we will work with schools that don’t increase segregation, because we need the places.”

However, Coun Berry said independent schools attempting to switch did not boost the number of places, adding: “A retirement offer to the owner is not a good use of public money.

“The recession has bit hard on private schools. There is no doubt that that is why Bradford Grammar Girls and Batley Grammar went in.”

Of the 24 applications, only three have actually opened – Kings Science Academy and Rainbow Free School, both in Bradford, and Batley Grammar, in Kirklees.

Others are in the pipeline, but most bids have, or are likely to be, thrown out by the Department for Education.

The list was published after Mr Gove bowed to a ruling from the Information Commissioner to release the details.