One of the first acts of Stephen Twigg as the Shadow Education Secretary was to send a tweet to Toby Young agreeing to visit the West London Free School.
In a Westminster Hall debate on education in May, Twigg was neutral on the subject of free schools.
I think that the Secretary of State for Education and the Minister who is here today have both referred to a US programme called KIPP, which is the Knowledge is Power Project. I had an opportunity to visit KIPP schools in New York and Texas some time ago and I was hugely impressed by what was being achieved in those schools. KIPP schools are a great example of how some of these new, more utonomous schools in the US are delivering, particularly for children from some of the poorest backgrounds. There is no doubt that both the US charter schools and the Swedish free schools are hugely popular with the parents of the children who attend them.
However, the evidence about the impact on standards of those schools is mixed. There have been a number of studies in New York that suggest there has been real improvement in the charter schools compared with non-charter schools and that in particular some of the poorest children from ethnic minorities have done better than they might have done otherwise. On the other hand, the Centre for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford university published a report in 2009 that suggested that there is a much more mixed picture across the US, including significant state-by-state variation. That suggests that the extra autonomy granted to those schools may in itself bring benefits—but there are clearly other factors at play in addition to that extra autonomy, which help to determine whether those schools are successful or less successful.
In some ways, the picture in Sweden is quite similar. The Swedish free schools are popular with parents. One piece of research that I looked at showed higher grade point averages in free schools compared with those achieved in other Swedish schools. It has been suggested that in an area with a concentration of free schools, there was a wider positive impact. On the other hand, other significant studies that I looked at earlier today suggest that there has been a general worsening of performance in the Swedish school system in recent years, so that it is perhaps the case that the free schools have not delivered the national system-wide improvement in Sweden that their proponents originally anticipated.
Furthermore, there is real concern in Sweden—this is different from the experience in the US of the charter school system—that the gaps in terms of socio-economic achievement have widened in the country. Admittedly, those gaps in Sweden have always been much narrower than the gaps in the UK, so I still think that we have a lot to learn from Sweden and from some of the other Scandinavian countries. Nevertheless, we still need to tread with care on both sides of this debate, because I have heard both advocates of the Government’s proposals and critics of them somewhat overstating the case for or against by citing evidence from the US and Sweden. As I said, the evidence from those countries is decidedly mixed.
I have written about the Swedish evidence before on this site. I would have thought that the improvements in those areas of the country with free schools was the significant point – crucially that competition had driven up standards of other schools in the area. But the message from Twigg does come across as not opposing free school on principle. He looks as though he will position himself to say if the evidence shows they are producing benefits he would allow them to stay open – without being wrecked by meddling banning them from teaching Latin, etc, etc.
As a councillor for Ravenscourt Park Ward it suits me very well, politically, for the Labour Party to be hostile to the West London Free School. Its parents are my voters. But I still hope that Labour's policy changes and that we can have cross party support not only for the existing free schools but for getting many more established.