Mark Lehain is the founder and principal of Bedford Free School.
I led the team that opened Bedford Free School in 2012, and last week my school received its second set of GCSE results.
In 2015 we were one of the very first new free schools to have GCSEs – and we were the top performing state school in our town.
I hoped it would be less stressful this time around, but was still unbelievably nervous – not least because it was for a cohort of students with really low attainment before they joined us.
In the event the results were great, and up significantly on last year on nearly every measure possible. More importantly, we are far from the only free school celebrating promising results this year.
Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School got 95 per cent of their first exam cohort five A*-C including Maths & English! Toby Young’s West London Free School had their first exam results and have done brilliantly – he’s rightly proud to have created a “grammar school for all”.
Dixons Kings Academy – which opened as Kings Science Academy – overcame the disruption caused by the activities of some of its founders and other sad events to post some stonking results, with 67 per cent getting five good GCSEs including Maths and English. To me this is a perfect example of impact a great multi-academy trust can have on a struggling school.
Looking ahead to next year, there should be even more game-changing results, with 2012 openers such as Reach Academy Feltham, Perry Beeches II, Greenwich Free School and Dixons Trinity Academy all having their first Year 11 cohorts.
Of course it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the free school policy by any means. But whilst it is still early days, I think we can be confident that the main policy aims – to improve parental choice and raise standards – are definitely materialising.
So what now for free schools, five years on from the first openers?
The government has a target of approving five hundred new free schools during this parliament. The feedback I’ve been getting from people across the sector is that there is going to be no difficulty in meeting this target, such is the level of interest from different groups to meet the need for school places and higher standards.
Given this, it might be tempting now to review the policy and perhaps lose the sense of urgency that has driven much of its progress in such a short period of time.
I would caution against playing safe. Indeed, I would argue that now is the time for the government to double-down on its commitment to the policy, and push for even more new schools. I say this for three main reasons.
First of all it would show that free schools are much more than a Michael Gove and David Cameron project, and that the new government has faith in the ability of local communities to solve the challenges they face.
Free schools are no longer about politics but the tens of thousands of teachers, kids and parents working together for the common good – this is a wonderful thing, and why they are proving to be such a success.
Secondly, as the school-aged population continues to boom, the need for places is not going to end any time soon. Simply growing existing schools – making big schools even bigger – is not the answer. Too many children get lost in massive schools already, and this approach does nothing to improve innovation and parental choice in the system.
Finally, if you look at where free schools are already open or planned to open – see here – there are large parts of the country that are still to have a free school approved. Many of these cold-spots are also areas of educational under-performance.
People are looking to address this – the New Schools Network has opened an office in Manchester to catalyse applications in the north-west where they haven’t been so forthcoming to date – but anything that meant areas don’t get to benefit from the addition of a good new school should be resisted.
Fortunately the government has recently broadened the grounds on which people can apply for new free schools – now they can explicitly be requested on grounds of innovation, social need, and greater choice and diversity – so the right framework is in place.
We just need the continued political will at the centre to enable local people to overcome the powerful vested interests of Local Authorities, existing poor schools and teaching unions.
Letting teachers and communities take control of the education their children receive is a powerful and empowering policy. It’s really starting to work now – the key therefore is to keep the tap turned on until every community that needs it has had the chance to welcome a new school into their midst, and experience the same benefits and joy that we have had here in Bedford.