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Lehain MarkMark Lehain is the founder and Principal of Bedford Free School.

Today marks two very important anniversaries for Bedford Free School. It isn’t
only a year to the day since we opened our doors to our first students, it is
also exactly three years since our project was on the list of the first 16 free schools approved by
Michael Gove
.

Last September we opened with two year groups and nearly 200
students, and yesterday we grew to four year groups and just under 400
students. We had a phenomenally successful first year of operation: all 200
places filled, a strong staff body, excellent feedback from students and their
families and, perhaps most importantly, incredible academic progress: on
average our students made 2 years’ progress in maths and English in just 10
months.

And all of this took place against an extremely hostile
local political backdrop and a planning permission dispute that dragged
on
and on and on,
until it was eventually resolved
in our favour
.


As I reflect upon how the last three years have been, both
for free schools in general and my school in particular, a number of key observations
jump out at me.

First of all, how much the political controversy around free
schools has faded away. I remember clearly the uproar from teaching unions,
anti-academies campaigners and others when the policy was announced, and how
nasty some of the campaigns run against free school groups in the early days
were.

We faced some pretty vindictive campaigning ourselves – and
it’s only now with a bit of distance that I appreciate how much that took out
of those involved, especially my family.

Most of the people who opposed us did so for genuine,
principled reasons – and I have complete respect for them. We are a democracy
after all, and education is a legitimate topic for debate. A minority though
crossed the line, and I will never forget the pain and distress they caused to
those close to me.

On our first morning last year, it felt like there were as
many journalists as students outside the school; as we opened for year two
yesterday we couldn’t get any press interest in the fact that we’d doubled in
size and are doing so well.

And think back to when the latest
batch of projects were approved
. Very little response, other than from the
usual lines from the automatons at the unions. Which leads me on to my second
observation.

The reasons used now to oppose free schools have changed.
Initially much was made of the dangers of schools being set up that were in
charge of their own destiny, outside of council control, and responding to
specific local parental demand.

It was telling that the limited sniping with the 2014 free
school announcement focused not on whether free schools were a good idea, but whether
they were in the right place
. This says to me that the argument against
academies – and free schools are just brand new academies – has been won,
leaving opponents now just to snipe at where they open and the specific types
of education they offer.

Which leads to my third observation. There can be no doubt
that the setup and support for processing new bids is far smoother and more
streamlined than that which we pioneers faced back in 2010. However, there is
still debate around where free schools have opened, and where they are allowed
to open in the future. In an age of limited government funds this seems completely
reasonable.

I am a believer in parental choice, and this can only happen
in an environment where there is both a surplus of school places and the ongoing
possibility of new entrants coming into an area. Free schools allow this to
happen in a very focused, effective and lower-cost fashion (think of the
millions that are saved from campaign and project management costs alone as
volunteers develop business cases).

Free school sceptics argue that new projects should only be
approved in areas with a shortage of places. I understand their reasons for
this – I would just plead that we don’t lose sight of what is, I believe, the
most powerful argument for the policy bar none: its impact on innovation and
standards.

I am confident that as time passes and the number of free
schools grows, we will see an innovation effect, both within the new schools
and existing schools, as they have to start responding more to parents’
demands. For the same reason it should also lead to a greater focus on
standards.

However, this can only happen if free schools can open
anywhere that parents – and not politicians – desire them.

A final thought occurs to me as a write this: what would
happen to free schools under a different government? On a personal level,
having been through all we have to set up an independent state school, I don’t
really want to end up the Principal of a council-controlled school in September
2015. I am watching policy developments across the political spectrum with
great interest.

So in three years free schools have come a long
way – the policy and supporting procedures have grown up! The declining
interest from sceptics and the press is a symptom of the successes so far. The
hard work of providing outstanding education to all the students in these
schools – and working with surrounding schools to support and learn from them
too – is what really matters now, and that is what all free schoolers now have
to focus on.

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