Cllr Robert Oliver, the Leader of the Conservative Council Group on Sunderland City Council, says Grindon Hall ending fees to become a free school has apporval of parents – but not the Labour MP
Grindon Hall Christian School is located in one of the most deprived parts of Sunderland, a stone’s throw from the state secondary school made infamous in Lord Adonis’ book on academies where he was told that, on leaving, pupils would “turn left for the shipyards and right for the coal mines”.
Formerly an independent school with a Christian ethos, last year it became one of the fifteen schools which have so far switched sectors when it achieved free school status.
The principal, Chris Gray, is passionate about small class sizes and traditional teaching and what the school lacks in facilities it makes up for in standards, regularly topping the city’s league tables.
Although pupil numbers had been falling – from 342 in 2006 to 241 in 2011 – the school insists that conversion was a genuine mission to provide education without charge rather than an economic necessity.
But the trickle of independent schools moving across to the state sector has not become a flood so will more follow, what are the pros and cons for the schools and will the Labour Party decide to support the policy?
On the face if it, it could be that the blurring of the independent and state sectors comes about through a mixture of altruism and financial need.
Most of the independent schools which have become free schools are located outside of the prosperous Home Counties which mirrors a regional decline in fee-paying pupils.
Evidence from the latest Independent Schools Council annual census backs this up showing pupil numbers dropping in every UK region in 2012/13 apart from the southeast.
But financial benefits to becoming a free school come at a cost, with funds tied to pupil numbers thus putting pressure on class sizes: a prized asset of the independent sector.
At Grindon Hall, funding has increased but the school has held out for small class sizes which it believes are crucial to its success.
Another supposed pro that could actually be a con is the notion of freedom itself, the word being misleading as control over free schools is moved but not eliminated with central replacing local supervision.
As free schools must adhere to the admissions code, any independent converter would lose its ability to select pupils and, in some areas, place themselves at a disadvantage to the remaining state grammar schools.
Conversely, Lord Adonis has made the point that few independent schools are now truly academically selective because of a fall in the number of applications making entry less competitive.
Even for those who feel that free school status may be an option, more appealing alternatives exist such as the Open Access scheme of the Sutton Trust which would introduce a needs blind admissions policy funded through a sliding scale of parental income.
This would ensure independent schools could continue to enjoy their independence whilst allowing access for all.
For the two main political parties there is a fine dividing line on free schools in general made even more acute when independent schools are involved.
The local Member of Parliament for Sunderland West, Sharon Hodgson, declined to give me a view on the application of Grindon Hall and has played a canny game ever since, balancing an ideological dislike of freeing schools from local political control against the approval of local parents who now have access to the school without fees.
One Sunderland Labour councillor summed this up well saying:
“A private education free, even I’d vote for that!”
The local Labour council’s own solution to low standards in the area, a trio of sponsored academies which uniquely allowed for the council to be a co-sponsor, have proven problematic with headteachers coming and going, results moving only slowly upwards and one school falling into special measures.
But sometime the Labour Party will need to progress from supporting or opposing free schools depending on local circumstances to a national policy.
With several independent schools now in the state sector and having allowed six such conversions when they were last in power, it may be tempted to accelerate the programme on the basis that parents have been supportive of successful applications.
Schools like Grindon Hall would also fit nicely into Alan Milburn’s suggestion of a school voucher system as its fees, at about £6,000 a year, were only marginally more than the cost of a year’s education in a maintained school.
Or it may be that, having weathered the worst of the economic storm, independent schools wait for a more appealing offer from whichever party forms the next government.