Free schools are Labour’s invention. They were a crucial part of our drive to promote equality of opportunity and social mobility, particularly in disadvantaged communities with low educational standards. Independent report after report has shown that they work, and most of them are wildly popular with parents, so the issue for Labour is how we take them forward, not whether we are for or against them.
Just to be clear about the parentage, free schools are simply – and legally – academies without an immediate predecessor state school. They are either new academies starting from scratch in terms of pupils and teachers, or private schools coming into the state-funded sector by means of academy legal status.
Free schools are established and funded in exactly the same way as other academies, under a contract with the Department for Education, which regulates their funding, governance, admissions and other essential features. They are inspected by Ofsted, and publicly accountable, in the same way as other academies are, too.
Labour set up dozens such “free school” academies before 2010. The only reason why the Tories invented the term “free school” was to pretend they were doing something fundamentally different, instead of continuing one of Labour’s most successful policies. The big changes of Tory education policy in opposition were to drop selection and the pledge to create new grammar schools. They did this under pressure because of the success of academies in creating a consensus that all-ability schools can achieve just as much but are far fairer, provided they are managed and led effectively.
Mossbourne, flagship of the academy fleet and a catalyst for the transformation of the secondary education system in Hackney and much of inner London, is a free school. Its outstanding founder principal, Michael Wilshaw, became chief inspector of schools at the start of this year because of his work at Mossbourne – a formidable compliment to Labour’s free school policy.
The Belvedere Academy in Liverpool, up there with Mossbourne among the most inspirational all-ability comprehensives in England, is a free school. It was the first independent school to come into the state sector under the academies programme (in 2007), dropping all fees and the eleven-plus and becoming a community comprehensive in admissions while retaining its independent governance. It was a catalyst for a string of other excellent private schools to become academies, which all also dropped selection and fees. More are following suit under the “free school” label. This is profoundly in the national interest, to promote educational quality and equality, which is what Labour stands for.
Let’s be clear about three other points. First, free schools are not-for-profit. The Tories would need to change the law to allow profit-making, and I would oppose this.
Second, free schools are comprehensive schools. Like all academies, they are not allowed to select by academic ability. Again, this is the law and I would oppose any change.
Third, despite Michael Gove’s rhetoric, the word “free” applies only to the academy-style freedoms in the way free schools are managed. There is no “free” right to establish them. On the contrary, as under Labour, few proposals to set up such schools succeed, and the successful ones are chosen by the government on the basis of need for good school places as well as the quality of management and innovation that the promoter credibly promises.
To succeed in principled politics, you need to understand the country and how to change it better than the other side. In education, the position is this. The school system was greatly improved by Labour’s 13 years of investment and reform, but it needs at least as much reform and improvement again over the next decade.
It is still the case today that only six in ten 16-year-olds achieve a decent GCSE standard, compared to between eight and nine in ten reaching an equivalent standard in leading systems abroad, including Singapore, Finland and South Korea. And China is advancing fast, producing as many graduates this year as England has school-age children (more than seven million).
No school can be better than its teachers. In the quality of teacher recruitment and training, Labour again brought about significant improvement but England still lags far behind the world leaders. The best education systems in other countries attract ten or more applications for each graduate teacher training place. In England it is barely two per post, and for maths it is barely 1.5.
There are still too few outstandingly good schools nationwide, particularly in disadvantaged areas. This is deeply felt – desperately felt – by all too many parents, and Labour must continue to be on their side.
The way to create more great schools is partly by improving teacher recruitment radically, partly by improving the leadership of existing schools radically, and partly by setting up entirely new schools with the right values, teaching and leadership to succeed. Free schools are vital to the third of these priorities.
But what type of free schools? The early Tory rhetoric about the new schools claimed that they would be “parent-led”. In reality, very few parents want to take on the job of setting up a school and governing it. What virtually all parents want is a good school, run by professionals in whom they have confidence.
Inevitably, therefore, a mere handful of free schools is being set up by parent groups. But parent groups can be highly effective sponsors, as is proving the case with the West London Free School, established by the journalist Toby Young and fellow parents in Hammersmith. Having visited WLFS, I say simply that Labour would be mad to propose to abolish it. The quality of teaching and leadership is very good, and the intake reflective of the local community. Tellingly, several of the parent-promoters are also teachers.
WLFS, together with the nearby Hammersmith Academy, a free school established under Labour and sponsored jointly by the Information Technologists’ Company and the Mercers’ livery company (which also sponsors the outstanding Thomas Telford city technology college in Shropshire), are new model community comprehensives helping to redress the large outflow of Hammersmith children to private schools and to state schools outside the borough. It is especially bizarre that WLFS has been criticised for teaching Latin. Why should children have to go to private schools such as the Latymer Upper School next door, with its fees of £15,000 a year, to learn Latin? And why should we accept that children are unable to learn Latin in the state system and, therefore, that classicists entering top universities overwhelmingly come from public schools?
Most free schools are being established by existing enterprises, including successful academies and academy sponsors such as Ark and Mossbourne. This is to the good.
More than half of Labour’s “free school” academies were in London, where the shortage of good-quality schools was acute. Nearly half of the coalition government’s first 24 free schools are located in the capital for the same reason. Labour’s free schools are located largely in areas of very high deprivation, selected with a relentless focus on overcoming disadvantage. Here the Tories are less focused, and we should criticise them accordingly.
Yet there is much outstanding work by free schools to address such inequalities and Labour should be championing this. Peter Hyman – remember him as an architect of New Labour? – is building a fine new enterprise in School 21 (“for success in the 21st century”) in Newham, east London, with the strong support of Robin Wales, Newham’s Labour mayor. Ed Vainker’s Reach Academy in Feltham, Middlesex, the Greenwich Free School and the Durand Academy in Lambeth are all pioneered by leaders passionate in their social mission.
Tellingly, Vainker and some of the Greenwich Free School team are alumni of Teach First, which recruits top graduates to teach in challenging schools and was another of Labour’s achievements in government. Hyman is an alumnus of Future Leaders, an impressive charity established in 2006, which has a mission to develop the next generation of leaders for challenging schools. Future Leaders talent-spots the most able up-and-coming teachers in these schools and prepares them intensively for headship within four years.
Hyman wants his free school to break away from “the tired old model of one teacher and 30 children sitting in rows waiting for the next pearl of wisdom”. His free school intends to put literacy, debate, discussion and communication skills at the centre of its curriculum, including new ideas such as the use of Harkness tables (large, oval tables around which a dozen or so students and their teacher interact, seminar-style).
School 21, WLFS and many other free schools are all-through, catering for children aged three to 18. Again, this builds on bold changes under Labour. Thirty of Labour’s academies are all-through; before academies, there were virtually no all-through state schools. Indeed, state schools were largely banned from extending their age range – another example of the stifling effect of over-regulation in the world before academies – despite evidence that changing schools at age 11 can disrupt a child’s education.
Durand intends to innovate still further as a free school, extending its existing primary school by building a boarding academy in West Sussex to which its pupils will move, as weekly boarders, from the age of 13. There will be no fees, a longer school day and a far broader curriculum than in most comprehensives. Again, this is brilliant innovation, building on both Labour’s all-through academies and our boarding academies.
Then there is technical education. JCB Academy, a successful Labour free school near JCB’s headquarters site in Staffordshire, provides an engineering-focused curriculum for pupils who, by their mid-secondary years, want to follow this route. It is the prototype for the university technical colleges (another variant of academy), whose mission is to transform the teaching of technical disciplines and skills in the state system. Again, Labour should be in strong support here.
This isn’t only about engineering. Birmingham Ormiston Academy – another Labour free school – opened last year. It offers a performing arts and digital skills curriculum for 14-to-19-year-olds, modelled on the hugely successful BRIT School in Croydon, south London, one of the original city technology colleges, whose alumni include Adele, Amy Winehouse, Jessie J and Leona Lewis. My aim was for there to be an equivalent of the BRIT School in every region of England, and Labour should be proposing this.
There are also the “studio schools” – small, secondary-age academies of no more than 300 pupils – which are yet another variant on the academy being taken forward by free schools. Barnfield Studio School, one of the first, opened in Luton in 2010 with a mission to promote practical skills and good qualifications among teenagers who could easily fail in an ordinary secondary school. It is pioneering what it calls “a hands-on approach to skills”, with project work and part of the week spent under supervision at local businesses. We need far more studio schools, too, particularly for teenagers in danger of dropping out of more conventional schools and academies.
Labour needs to focus the free schools debate on how the party can address disadvantage in bold new ways and provide vital innovation for the future. We also need to talk credibly and constructively about priorities in matters where the Tories are in the wrong place and are deeply complacent. Teacher recruitment and development, the curriculum, Sure Start and the replacement policy that will be needed for £9,000 university tuition fees are all in this category.
Labour will get back into government by having a better plan for the future, not by opposing changes which are working well. This applies above all in education, which is one of our success stories.