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Wlfs Today is my proudest day as a local councillor attending the official opening of the West London Free School. For the parents of Ravenscourt Park Ward, whom I am honoured to represent, school choice has now become a reality. Today is a triumph for Toby Young and the vision, courage and determination he has shown in seeing the school open. But the role of Hammersmith and Fulham Council in encouraging rather than obstructing him has been crucial.

But not everybody is happy. Melissa Benn writing in The Guardian this morning raised various objections.

Let me respond to some of them.

She says: This morning On Friday Boris Johnson will officially wield a large pair of scissors and no doubt a pile of well chosen Latin tags when he officially opens the West London Free School. It may be accident rather than strategy that WLFS, the brainchild of the journalist Toby Young and the most famous free school in the land, is one of the last to open. But it brings to an end a week of unprecedented and largely uncritical publicity for free schools, skilfully orchestrated by the government and its key ally, the New Schools Network.

Response: It is not clear why the government would need to have ‘skillfully orchestrated’ the fact that schools are opening at the start of September, just as they have in past years.

As thousands of schools open up again for the autumn term, the attention of the country's media has been riveted on a tiny handful of primaries and secondaries, most of which have yet to complete a week of teaching, deal with a truculent child or publish a single exam result. Yet you could be forgiven for believing that these 24 start-ups are already the solution to all our educational problems.

The establishment of the first 24 Free Schools within 18 months of the government coming to power is unprecedented. It took Labour five years to open the first academies and it previously took 9 years for groups of parents to open new schools.

There’s certainly diversity in the free school model, if some odd class politics: soldiers to teach the feral underclass; meditation skills for the heavy breathers.

There is, as yet, no free school run by soldiers. A group has submitted an application, which will go through the usual DfE approval process. The Free School teaching ‘meditation skills for the heavy breathers’ is either the Maharishi school in Lancashire or the first ever Hindu school Krishna Avanti, in Leicester. Maharishi is a converter whose pupils achieve almost three times the national rate of A*s and As and gets gleaming reports from Ofsted, so who is Benn to sneer at their methods? Or was it aimed at Krishna-Avanti, and therefore a cheap insult to those who practice the Hindu faith?

Peter Hyman, Blair’s former speechwriter turned teacher and the coalition’s most high-profile convert yet, plans to open a non-selective, all-ability, innovative comprehensive in the East End of London in 2012; while Sajid Hussain, the Oxford-educated son of a Kashmiri-born bus driver, hopes his King’s Science Academy in Bradford will enable students to navigate their way through the strange mores of the English elite. Hussain has talked of how so many first generation academic achievers like himself feel that “there is a club. The language – they can't speak the language … there’s a level they can't access.” I wonder what Hussain makes of a media insider like Toby Young, who has made no secret of his wish to create a faux private school out of taxpayers’ money.

Benn’s attack on Toby Young for creating ‘a faux private school’ appears to suggest it is a bad thing to attempt to mimic the success of private schools in the state sector, and that state pupils should not expect the quality of their education to match private schools. Her reference to ‘taxpayers’ money’ neglects to mention that Free Schools receive per pupils funding and the pupil premium on exactly the same basis as other state schools.

Young has written openly of his admiration for, and envy of, such figures as Johnson and David Cameron – whom he first encountered at Oxford – and his hopes that some of that bumptious, bottomless self-confidence will rub off on the pupils at his new school.

Again, Benn suggests it would be a bad thing to give state pupils an Eton-style education.

Like it or loathe it – and I loathe it – large sums are being ploughed into free schools; £130m has been laid out on capital costs already, and there is clearly more being spent that government won’t disclose.

£130 million equates to 2.6 per cent of the Department for Education’s capital budget this year.

It has been estimated that there is now one civil servant per 30 children working on making free schools a success.

This might be true if only 24 Free Schools are ever set up. In fact, DfE expects hundreds of Free Schools to open this parliament. Almost 300 applications to open next year were received by DfE.

But despite much fulmination this week by the education secretary, Michael Gove, the schools have clearly failed their own self-set tests. Few among this first wave are truly parent-promoted projects…

Parental involvement is essential to all 24 Free Schools. Applicants had to show substantial demand from local parents before bids proceeded.

…and nor are they likely to benefit the most deprived in our society.

In fact, half of the 24 Free Schools are located in the 30 per cent most deprived communities in the country. Two thirds of them are in Labour constituencies.

Instead this is an odd, hybrid movement that incorporates failing independent schools, diverse faith groups, and charitable educational groups. Ark (Absolute Return for Kids) is just one of a number of powerful educational chains playing a key role in the second, and more substantive, part of the new school revolution – the speedy and shockingly undemocratic campaign led by government to persuade many of the country’s best schools to switch to academy status.

Benn’s attack on Ark is spectacularly misjudged: even the Guardian describes Ark as ‘running successful non-selective, non-religious schools in deprived areas’ . Ark schools are giving a high quality education to some of the most deprived children in the country. Ark schools in England are also part of the international Ark charity which runs a range of health, welfare and education projects in the UK, Southern Africa, India and Eastern Europe.

A few months ago I received a call on a Sunday night about plans to convert my old school – Holland Park comprehensive, in west London – to an academy.

Benn fails to mention Holland Park’s reputation as the ‘Socialist Eton’ – an elite state school renowned for educating the children of rich left-wingers.

The decision was done and dusted by the following Thursday. This risibly short consultation period is typical of conversions around the country, leaving parent groups, school governors and local councillors angry and dismayed. To add insult to injury, most of the new “converter” academies are also in affluent areas, unlike Labour’s original city academy project.

All schools can now become academies – if Benn believes more schools in deprived areas should convert, she should tell Labour authorities and teaching unions to stop being obstructive. Additionally, the
government is doing more to create academies in deprived areas than Labour ever managed: a record number of underperforming schools will become academies this year. The 200 worst primary schools are going to be turned into academies next year.

The new academies are being funded by top-slicing local authority budgets, handing disproportionately large sums of money to already advantaged schools. Meanwhile, many local schools are struggling to deal with the impact of budget cuts from every quarter. Last week it was predicted that there will soon be a terrifying £1bn black hole in local authority finances as a result of the government’s school policies, which councils are warning might lead to higher local taxes.

Benn fails to mention that local authorities will no longer be providing a wide range of services to schools which become academies, so they will no longer need the funding for these services they used to receive. Funding is being reduced according the number of schools that local authorities are no longer responsible for. Keeping budgets at previous levels would mean double-funding authorities and academies for the same services.

Remember: no one voted for these changes.

Free Schools were one of the most recognisable and trumpeted Conservative policies before the election. The Free School model was outlined on page 56 of the Conservative manifesto. 10.7 million people voted Conservative at the general election.

The Liberal Democrats fought the 2010 election in explicit opposition to free schools and academy plans. Now it almost feels too late, and certainly an almighty mess. The mass advent of free schools and academies – the “independent state school” model – will add another unnecessary and opaque tier to an already overcomplex and unequal state system.

Academies have existed since 2002 – they are not ‘add[ing] another… tier’ to the school system. Free Schools have the same legal status as Academies.

It will encourage a new kind of snobbery, and subtle segregation within the state sector, with ambitious parents keen to feel the private school effect.

The real snobbery is suggesting that those ‘ambitious parents’ they have no right to expect a standard of education which matches private schools.

Free schools and academies enjoy a range of greater freedoms that will help them to pull ahead in the new competitive schools market.

Any school can begin to enjoy those freedoms themselves by applying to become an academy – all schools are eligible for conversion.

But what if the new schools fail, or push old ones to close?

Benn appears to suggest it would be a bad thing if failing and unpopular schools were allowed to close.

Will there be enough civil servants to deal with problems that arise within those academies that go it alone, cut off from the local authority family of schools? And do parents really want to see more faith-based or charitable chains that cannot be challenged except through the Secretary of State?

Given that parents are flocking to apply for their children to go to Free Schools, and setting Free Schools up themselves, it would appear the answer to Ben
n’s question is ‘yes’. Two thirds of the Free Schools
opening this year are oversubscribed even though many are opening in temporary accommodation. For example, the West London Free School received over 500 applications for 120 places.

Education is a common and public endeavour that should bring our children together, not further divide them. Call it what you will – comprehensive, multilateral or simply fair and efficient – some of the most successful school systems in the world are based on the non-selective, neighbourhood principle.

An international study by the OECD that ‘schools that enjoy greater autonomy in resource allocation tend to do better than those with less autonomy’.

Get the basic structure right and you can offer far greater innovation and freedom within the classroom. The final irony may be that parents flood back to local schools as the increasingly unattractive values of niche marketing, social snobbery and religious interests begin to take hold. Broad-based secular comprehensives that draw in families across the class, faith and ethnic spectrum, entirely free of private control, could hold a new appeal. And who knows? Sensitive, clever men like Sajid Hussain might one day realise it is not possible to crack the codes of the elite while other forms of privileged education flourish, completely unaddressed.

We’ll see who is right.
 

18 comments for: Fisking Melissa Benn’s Guardian article on free schools

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