Free schools must be set free

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has pledged that free schools will be at the heart of education policy. In terms of the numbers, the growth of free schools has been strong. There are now 444 of them. There are hundreds more in the pipeline.

But the mission to provide innovation and wider choice is not just about numbers. Do free schools have enough freedom? A recent report from the New Schools Network suggests they could and should have more:

“The free schools programme must now return to its original purpose and mission. Recent narrow restrictions on the types of schools that can be approved and the bureaucracy of the application process have hampered the growth of the programme. Innovation and community led schools, which were the driver behind the free schools concept, are completely absent in recent waves. Where highly successful free schools already exist, they are struggling to expand and spread excellence. There is a risk the system is becoming dominated by a few big regional players, creating barriers to unleashing the next wave of innovation in education. In recent years, the policy has continued to see success in niche areas, such as the approval of four new university sponsored 16-19 maths schools and the growth in the number of special school places. Yet the original vision of the mainstream programme, which brought so many benefits to the thousands of children, has disappeared.”

It offers the following recommendations:

  • Open 100 new free schools each year, concentrated in areas that have been left behind
  • Expand the policy to ensure there is a free school in every local authority
  • Encourage new providers to enter the schools system by allowing new single academy trusts to be established, and placing innovation at the heart of the free school assessment process
  • Legislate to compel local authorities to set aside land for new free schools and remove the barriers to opening new schools
  • A new sponsorship model which brings the benefits of a track record of improvement, new leadership and capital funding to schools which have been stuck in a pattern of underperformance
  • Support for small, highly successful free schools to grow their academy trust, sharing their Outstanding practice
  • A new, dedicated, AP free school wave to deliver places for vulnerable pupils at risk of gang violence.

It is undeniable that community-led academy trusts have provided some of the most successful free schools. One of them is Michaela, the secondary school in Brent. The founder and headmistress is Katharine Birbalsingh who is an inspirational figure. Boris Johnson is among the visitors who were impressed.

So it is very welcome that the latest batch of approvals, which was for 22 new free schools, included the following:

“Michaela Community School Stevenage- a mixed, non-faith secondary providing 1260 school places for 11-18 year old pupils and will be part of a newly formed multi-academy trust, including Michaela Community School in Brent, judged Outstanding by Ofsted in 2017.”

Other new schools that were announced included Edgar Wood Academy in Rochdale, one of the most deprived areas of the country. The school will be part of the Altus Education Partnership. Its founding school, Rochdale Sixth Form College, has been named as the highest ranked college for value added performance in the country for the past five years.

Newcastle-Upon-Tyne will have the Callerton Academy. This will be led by Gosforth Federated Academies trust, which since 2010 has run the popular and over-subscribed Gosforth Academy, rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.

BOA Stage and Screen Production will be a new 16-19 specialist college in central Birmingham. An offshoot of the successful Birmingham Ormiston Academy, it will offer a highly specialised education in the technical and production side of the performing arts for pupils in the West Midlands.

Looking down the full list we can see that other ones will be opening in Barnsley, Doncaster, Oldham, Liverpool, Salford and St Helens. This is where the greater opportunity is needed the most. These are the areas where all too often parents are not happy with the choices currently available. For many children, these new schools will be transformational for their life chances. Will the local MPs welcome their arrival? Or demand they be closed down?

Boosting free schools is not the only answer. Just as important is to speed along with the forced takeovers of failing schools which are then reborn under new management as “sponsored academies.” The challenges are great in turning round a school.  Reputations takes time to recover even if the name is changed and a new head and governing body brought in. On the other hand, at least the building is already there. Finding premises for new schools is the hardest part, which is why the recommendation noted above to force councils to release sites is very sensible. I would also like to see independent schools give a bigger role. The Assisted Places Scheme should be revived. It should also be made easier for new independent schools to start up, which would result in downward pressure on school fees.

The moral and political imperative is to be bold with school reform. Labour, the “enemies of promise”, threatens church schools, free schools, academies, grammar schools and independent schools. The Conservative reply should be to back all these schools. They should be given more freedom and more chance to expand. Then Jeremy Corbyn will find there are plenty of parents, teachers and pupils willing to defend their schools from his attack.

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Suella Braverman: The momentum for free schools has stalled. Johnson’s new Government should revive it.

Suella Braverman is a former DexEU Minister, and is MP for Fareham. She was Chairman of Governors, Michaela Community School, 2013-2017.

Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I was part of a team that founded Michaela Community School in my home town of Wembley. Our goal was to provide something that the existing state schools in the area couldn’t: a rigorous knowledge-based curriculum, high standards of behaviour and accountability, and a strong focus on British values. We accepted 120 pupils in our first intake, and will have more than 800 in a couple of years time. Our first cohort awaits its GCSE results later this month.

Today, Michaela is transforming lives. Many of our children start with below average reading and numeracy levels, speak English as a second language, or have special educational needs. Yet despite these challenges, the school is oversubscribed among parents, rated outstanding by Ofsted, and is producing exceptional outcomes for its pupils.

And it’s down to Conservative Party policy that we – a group of teachers, parents, and community-minded locals – were able to get such a project off the ground in the first place. Michael Gove’s free schools programme, which was designed to increase the supply of good school places by letting groups like ours set up new state-funded schools outside local authority control, set the stage for Michaela and many other schools like it.

It’s now almost eight years since the first wave of free schools opened their doors, and the evidence suggests that they are a huge success. Parents like them: free schools are more likely to be oversubscribed than any other type of state school and have the highest ratio of top-three preferences to places available. The inspectors rate them: free schools are 50 percent more likely to be scored outstanding by Ofsted than other types of school.

And the academic results speak for themselves: despite being only two percent of total schools, free schools are responsible for four of England’s top 10 Progress 8 scores – which measure educational improvement between 11 and 18. Primary free schools have the best Key Stage 1 outcomes, and sixth-form free schools the best A-level results, of any type of state school. Disadvantaged pupils also do better in free schools.

In short, free schools are a Conservative policy that we should be proud to talk about and prepared to build upon. Yet in recent years we have lost enthusiasm for the free schools project, and as a result have allowed one of our most important reforms to run aground. Unless things change, and soon, the whole free schools agenda is at risk of withering on the vine.

The simple fact is that at the current rate of openings, there will be fewer than 500 free schools in England (out of a total of 24,000 schools) by May 2020 – a decade after the reforms began. Assuming the same number of free schools open in the second decade of the programme as the first, only four percent of schools will be free schools by 2030.

Even these projections are beginning to look rather optimistic. The last Government significantly tightened the assessment criteria for the latest wave of applications to open free schools, effectively ruling that they could only open in areas where there was a shortage of school places and results in existing schools were extremely poor.

This isn’t just contrary to the original ethos of the free schools programme – that we need a surplus of school places if choice and competition are going to be meaningful concepts within state education. Given current demographic trends, it also means that the free schools programme is likely to grind to a halt in most parts of England in the years ahead – even as parents across the country struggle to get their children into their first choice schools.

That’s why my new report for the Centre for Policy Studies – published today – calls on the government to turbocharge its commitment to free schools. We must abandon the timid approach of the previous administration and double-down on success.

First of all, let’s allow free schools to open anywhere where attainment in existing schools is below average. But more than that, let’s also accept applications that show an innovative and potentially useful approach to learning, and which have significant levels of community and parental support.

We need to get back to the founding principles of the free schools movement: that education should be demand-led, and responsive to the particular needs of an area. From the community, for the community; that is the real beauty of free schools.

Secondly, I realise that opening new schools can be an expensive business. That’s why my report for the CPS examines ways to reduce costs to the taxpayer, and bring more private funding into the free schools sector. Third, I make the case for a new system of peer review for free schools. And lastly, we need a renewed effort to reach out to potential school founders – especially in those parts of the country that suffer from chronic educational under-performance.

Ultimately, having founded a free school myself, I know the difference they can make to children’s lives. The free schools programme is a wonderful achievement, but we are not doing enough to build on our own success. With a new government now in place, we need to fight for free schools so that they remain at the heart of our educational agenda – and do all we can to support those who want to establish them.

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