Mark Lehain is trying to set up a free school in Bedford – where the Lib Dem Mayor has been re-elected, Mark has not found the council helpful. This is his speech from the ConservativeHome Local Government Conference on Wednesday.

Screen shot 2011-05-20 at 08.14.17 Last December I attended a one day conference on free schools & academies organised by the Trades Union Congress. The teaching unions are, of course, resolutely hostile to the government’s education reforms, so I wasn’t expecting any enthusiasm — but I was very surprised to hear the TUC give the best reason I’ve ever heard to support the ‘free schools’ policy.

Following the usual welcoming words from the stage there was a Q & A session about educational reform. One man stood up and made the following statement:

“I come from Bedford where one of these free schools is being set up,” he said. “The people behind this school claim that they will recruit the poorest students. And they also say they are aiming to ensure that 100% of their students get 5 good GCSEs including English and maths.”

Before the poor man could get to his question, the entire room burst into laughter. What was so funny? Horrifyingly, it turned out that to the union representatives in the room, the idea that school-full of working class pupils could achieve 5 good GCSEs was so ridiculous as to be laughable. ‘What a ridiculous idea!’ they all said to each other. ‘How can you set a target like that when you will be teaching working class or minority ethnic kids? Either these ‘free school’ enthusiasts are deluded, or they’re liars who really just want to recruit middle-class students.’

So when I’m asked why I’m setting up a free school, or why I think they’re necessary, I tell that story from the TUC meeting, because to me it sums up pretty much everything that is wrong with the system today.

There is a lot wrong – no doubt about that. By 16, students have had 12 years of school and over 14,000 hours of lessons, yet only around half hit the benchmark standard. I can’t think of any other £90 billion industry that is allowed such a failure rate. I’m often asked why I, a maths teacher with no experience of being a headmaster, think I’m qualified to set up a new school. I challenge these doubters to justify why things should stay as they are.

I must emphasise that there is an awful lot of outstanding practice throughout the schools in my area. We have so many fantastic people in our schools, and some great results. However, our system as a whole is far from good enough – we’re way behind the national average at 16 and are struggling to catch up.

Local parents and the wider community in Bedford and Kempston seem mostly delighted about our proposal. There is a perception that the Local Authority has ignored people for too long and allowed low standards to continue unchallenged. We have been able to show parents that are now alternatives. They also seem to like the kind of school we are setting up: 11-16, only 100 in a year group, with a longer school day, emphasis on English and maths, and a full co-curriculum for all. It’s going to be completely different to any of the other local schools, and people seem excited by the idea.

The good news then is that there is a market for our school — we quickly signed up over 450 families with 650 kids – and that was without premises to point at! People even invited us into their homes for house meetings so we could explain our plans to them in person.

If there’s bad news, it’s that the journey so far has not been without its challenges. We have, without wanting to at all, picked up a small handful of quite vicious opponents, mainly linked to the local political parties and teaching unions.

Interestingly enough most of them don’t live in our area; some have even sent their own children to private schools. But this didn’t stop them making extremely nasty and personal attacks, and ignoring our honest answers to their questions. It seemed that if the truth didn’t fit their prejudice, they stuck with the prejudice. What a wonderful example for children!

Hopefully, now that even people like Andy Burnham are accepting of the merits of free schools in areas like ours, the cynics will get involved and help us make the school a success, rather than snipe or grumble form the sidelines.

The other big hurdle has been finding a suitable site. In this respect, we have experienced the ways that Local Authorities can impact upon free school projects, even though they don’t have any explicit veto over the process.

We spent a long time last autumn in discussions with our directly-elected Mayor about the possibilities of a site being released as a result of a restructure of schools in the area. In the end, he felt he couldn’t proceed with any changes, full stop. This ended up delaying the opening of our school by a whole year.

The Department for Education and our local MP are brilliant – and Bedford College have been by our side throughout. But the LA has all the important local assets and an army of well-paid officers at its disposal, which must be a real boon when they are wholeheartedly behind you.

That said, the DfE have now signed off our business case, we WILL open in September 2012, and this past year really has been amazing. I’ve a lot more grey hairs now, and perhaps I’m a little sad at the cynicism of people who should know better……yet we stand on the brink of opening a school that could, directly and through friendly competition and collaboration, transform the lives of the kids in our town. What could be more exciting than that?