Will Tanner: Labour’s war on free schools would be a direct attack on social mobility

Angela Rayner’s hostility to academies runs against both the interests and preferences of parents and pupils alike.

Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.

“The Tories’ Academy system is simply not fit for purpose”, raged Angela Rayner, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, at last year’s Labour Party Conference.

A future Labour Government, she announced, would “instead focus on delivering what works to get the best results for pupils” by abolishing free schools and bringing academies under greater local authority control.

The uncomfortable truth for the Labour Party is that “what works best for pupils” seems increasingly to be studying at a school free from local control, just like an academy or free school.

According to official performance data published last week, the schools which deliver the most progress for pupils are free schools. If you track how pupils progress from the end of primary school to the end of secondary school, free schools achieve nearly a quarter of a grade higher in each qualification than other similar pupils nationally. This is double the average progress score achieved at the next best type of school, converter academies.

This is not, it seems, a fluke or fake news. It is the second year in a row that free schools have outperformed all other kinds of school on the government’s Progress 8 measure. The gap between free schools and other categories of school has also grown year-on-year. The best multi-academy chain in the country – Star Academies – achieved an average of nearly one and a half grades’ worth of progress for its 378 pupils last year.

In contrast, the type of school that Rayner would like all schools to be – local authority maintained schools – delivered an average Progress 8 score of -0.03, meaning pupils, if anything, marginally regressed over their years in secondary school compared to other similar pupils in England.

This is just the latest in a long line of evidence that giving schools more autonomy over what and how they teach delivers improved results for children. It is telling that 31 per cent of free schools are rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, compared to 21 per cent of all schools. It is true that sponsored academies have lower Progress 8 scores than other kinds of school, but according to research by the Department for Education published last week: “pupil outcomes in sponsored academies have typically improved since their formation in comparison with sets of similar schools”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, parents have noticed. According to research from the New Schools Network, primary free schools have been the most popular school type for the last five years running, and at secondary level have proved the most popular kind of school for the last four years. So, as if planning to abolish the most successful type of school wasn’t enough, Labour also wants to close down the schools that are most popular with parents.

But nowhere is the short-sightedness of Rayner’s schools policy more visible than in East Ham, where Brampton Manor Academy is transforming the fortunes of a community long beset by disadvantage. When Labour left office in 2010, Brampton Manor School was a good and improving secondary in a tough neighbourhood. A year later the school converted to academy status and in 2012 it opened a sixth form to direct its uncompromising approach to excellence to school leavers.

In 2014 the sixth-form generated its first offer from an Oxbridge college. The following year the number had risen to five. Last year, 20 children were given places at Oxford and Cambridge. This year the school doubled that, with 41 pupils being offered a place at Oxbridge, two thirds of which will be the first in their families to go to university. It’s nickname, the “Eton of East London”, is well-earned: Brampton Manor delivers more working class children from East London to Oxbridge than from some of the most exclusive and expensive private schools in the country.

When asked to reveal the secret of Brampton Manor’s success, its principal, Dr Dayo Olukoshi, talks explicitly about the benefits of the academy model. He talks proudly of his work to “eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy” and to “empower our staff to take risks and innovate in their classrooms”. The school has a study centre open from 6am to 7pm, funded by the Pupil Premium, and offers students Oxbridge preparation classes to drive higher levels of university success.

All of this would be more difficult, if not impossible, if Brampton Manor was bound by the kind of local authority strictures that the Labour Party have pledged to reintroduce.

The most galling aspect of Rayner’s schools policy, however, is the airbrushing of the Labour Party’s foundational role in the academy movement from 2002, and the wilful rejection of cross-party endeavour to expand those freedoms to every school. Academies were first championed by a young Andrew Adonis in the Downing Street Policy Unit, and later the House of Lords, before being embraced wholesale by David Laws and Nick Gibb under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

But gone are the days when the Labour Party recognises the role of academies like Brampton Manor in “bringing new hope and breathing new life” into local communities, as Tony Blair heralded in a speech in 2005. Today the policy is nothing more than a “Tory academies system”.

Labour says it wants to deliver “what works to get the best results for children”, yet it is increasingly evident that the winning formula is the exact opposite of its one-size-fits-all pledge to reinstate bureaucratic control. If the innovation-embracing approach of schools like Star Academies and Brampton Manor delivers whole grades’ worth of pupil progress and places at Oxbridge, that is the model we should be pursuing, not restricting.

Thankfully, the revolution started under Blair, and radically accelerated under Michael Gove, has already liberated thousands of schools and millions of pupils, and now more than half of all children in England benefit from the freedoms of academies and free schools. That is an auspicious milestone, but it is clear the battle is not yet won.

WATCH: Rayner – “I think that if we end up with a second referendum we will have failed the public.”

Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary tacks her personal view on to a defence of Labour’s corporate position.

Damian Hinds: Labour is wrong to turn its back on academies

Putting teachers and heads in charge has consistently allowed schools and pupils to excel. We must continue to put our trust in them.

Damian Hinds is Education Secretary and MP for East Hampshire.

Trust. In the education world it has two distinct, yet related, meanings. One is the trust we place in head teachers, school leaders, and teachers to run schools and teach our children effectively.

The other is in terms of Academy Trusts: charitable organisations given the freedom to improve standards in the most appropriate way for that school environment.

Together they form the academies programme, which hands power back to schools and school leaders to make the right decisions for their pupils and communities, while providing teachers with mentoring, training, and the opportunity to share good practices.

I believe the programme is working: secondary school data out today show that converter academies achieve results well above the national average, and research out yesterday showed that standards are rising faster in the majority of sponsored academies than in similar council run schools.

This is great news for pupils, as figures out this week show more than 50 per cent of children in state-funded schools in England are now studying at one of the country’s 8,000 academies or free schools.

At this key milestone, we can be proud that generations of children stand a better chance of receiving a high-quality education that meets their needs, interests and abilities.

When the Conservatives came to government in 2010, the academies programme had already been around for a decade, with the aim of improving pupil performance and breaking the cycle of low expectations. The first academy opened in 2002 and 203 schools, mostly in inner cities, had been opened by the time Labour left office. Labour MP’s were praising their results from the rooftops.

Then the Conservatives came to power, with the inimitable Michael Gove as Education Secretary, and “rocket boosters” were put under the Academies programme, with more than 1,000 academies converting by August 2011.

The idea behind academies is simple really: teachers and school leaders know best how to run schools. This is backed up by research from the OECD. It found the creation of more autonomous schools improves outcomes, as school leaders have the freedom to innovate in curriculum, instruction, and governance.

We now have a system where a school can convert to be an academy – taking advantage of the autonomy and freedom that brings. Or a failing school is issued an academy order and brokered into an Academy Trust, to get the help and support it needs to improve – a so called ‘sponsored academy’.

Hillcrest Academy primary in the Chapeltown area of Leeds – one of the most deprived areas of the country, with historically poor outcomes for pupils – has seen a huge turnaround thanks to academisation. Hillcrest had 14 head teachers in 20 years, and had declined from a ‘good’ school in 2007, to ‘requires improvement’ in 2010, to ‘inadequate’ in 2013. In the space of two and a half years, after joining the GORSE Academies Trust, it received an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted, and hit has above-average reading, writing and maths skills and below-average pupil absence.

Converting into an academy also works for schools who are already doing well, but want to take advantage of the greater responsibility that comes with academisation. The Bicknell School, a special school in Bournemouth that had been rated ‘good’ in two inspections, became Tregonwell Academy in 2011. In its first inspection it was judged ‘outstanding’ in all areas, and has benefited ever since from putting teachers in the driving seat. It was inspected again in January 2018 and has retained its outstanding judgement.

Despite the positive trend for academies, Angela Rayner, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, wants to end the academies programme and bring all schools back under local authority control. This would see a Labour-led “National Education Service”, with the government defining the curriculum for all schools and freedoms for heads stripped away. I wrote about this on ConHome when she first made the announcement, but to remind readers exactly what she said:

“We’ll start by immediately ending the Tories’ academy and free schools programmes. They neither improve standards nor empower staff or parents… we will use our time in government to bring all publicly funded schools back into the mainstream public sector, with a common rulebook and under local democratic control.”

Not even wanting to get into what a common rule book written by Jeremy Corbyn would look like, in turning their back on academies Labour are turning their back on the freedom and innovation that have seen standards in our schools rise – putting ideology before what is right for our children.

Not only are academies and free schools some of the best-performing in the country, they can completely overturn expectations for entire communities where low achievement and stifled hope and opportunity had been the norm.

The Conservatives’ trust in educators to have the freedom to run schools in a way that best suits their local needs has paid dividends. I firmly believe in the academies programme, and that is why I will continue to advocate for the opportunities that becoming an academy can bring.

Exclusive. New Government of National Unity Cabinet in full.

We have the full list from the New Progressive Democratic Liberal National Coalition Party – including a three-way Northern Ireland jobshare.

Prime Minister: Lord Osborne of the West Kensington Powerhouse.

Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Lords: Lord Blair of Basra.

Foreign and European Secretary: Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool.

Home Secretary: Baroness May of Maidenhead.

Chancellor of the Exchequer: Michael Gove.

Defence Secretary: Jeremy Hunt.

Business and Equalities Secretary: Keith Vaz.

Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary: Dominic Grieve.

Health Secretary: Dr Sarah Wollaston.

Education Secretary: Angela Rayner.

Work and Pensions Secretary: Yvette Cooper.

Local Government Secretary: Liam Fox.

Environment Secretary: Barry Gardiner.

Transport and HS2 Secretary: Lord Adonis.

Culture and Beauty Secretary: Sir John Hayes.

International Development Secretary: Vince Cable.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury: Sajid Javid.

Scottish Secretary: Alistair Carmichael.

Welsh Secretary: Stephen Kinnock.

Northern Ireland Secretary: Sylvia Hermon, Leo Varadkar, Martin Selmayr (jobshare).

Also attends Cabinet –

Attorney General: Keir Starmer.

Chief Whip: Tom Watson.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Chair of the New Progressive Democratic Liberal National Coalition Party): Amber Rudd.

Lord Privy Seal (Cabinet Office): John Healey.

Deputy Foreign Secretary: Anna Soubry.

Deputy Home Secretary: Chuka Umanna.

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  • The Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade have been abolished.
  • This makes room for two of three Ministers undertaking the Northern Ireland jobshare.