Interviewed on Sky News last year the Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg criticised free schools on various grounds. Mr Twigg claimed the new schools were not "value for money" – although the average cost for setting one up is £6 million while the average for new secondary schools under the Labour Government was £28 million for each new school under the Building Schools for the Future programme. Free schools tend to be conversions of existing buildings.
Then Mr Twigg said that the Education Secretary Michael Gove had put "all his eggs in one basket" on free school – as if Mr Gove was not bringing in any other reforms.
We also had Mr Twigg seizing on any examples he could find of projects with free schools being delayed or abandoned. Yet the speed of new schools being established has been staggering. The BSF scheme – with its bureaucratic wrangling, vanity projects and modernist architects – would routinely take three years before a brick was laid.
However, the main theme of attack on the new free schools, from Mr Twigg and others, has been that some of them open where there are "surplus places" at exisiting schools.The suggestion is that if there are schools with spare places then a new school is not "needed." Mr Twigg even equated areas with surplus places with areas where parents "don't want" free schools.
Mr Twigg should ask himself why there are lots of surplus places at some schools.Why parents travel long distances to take their children to other schools. Opposing any surplus places means opposing any parental choice. Certainly there has to be a limit. A school that is half empty should be closed or put under new management and the problem addressed that way. But instead the Left see the answer as forcing more parents to send their children to the school. On the contrary more competition is needed.
A good rule of thumb is that when a free school opens it is the bad schools that will complain. The existing good schools are the ones with nothing to fear. Take this report of new free schools opening in East Lancashire.
Mike Tull, headmaster at Marsden Heights Community College said:
“I have concerns about free schools because, in Burnley and Pendle, there are a significant number of excess places already.
“The quality of education in the area is good and improving and I am unclear as to why we would need another school.”
Is it good? In Mr Tull's school last year 43% achieved five or more good GCSEs – that compares with 59.9% as the average in the county and 59.4% nationally. Is it improving? In 2011 the school had 45% getting five or more good GCSEs. If I lived in Nelson I probably wouldn't want to send my children to Mr Tull's school.
There is no doubt that Mr Tull will be feeling the heat. The new free schools could cause his school roll to plunge, meaning his school would cease to be viable. Furthermore, by 2015 he has to achieve more than 50% of pupils getting five or more good GCSEs or his school will be forced to become an academy under new management. (At present the "floor" is 40%.)
New schools are needed because Marsden Heights Community School isn't good enough. It needs to do better. For Mr Tull to be "unclear" about this is unfortunate. He has got a huge challenge on his hands. I hope he manages to turn his school around. A good start would be recognition from him of the scale of the task.