Labour's stance on free schools is as confused as ever. Officially its position has thawed – provided that new schools have a different name. But in practice they usually snipe whenever a group of parents get together to try and achieve more choice and a better start for their children.
Recently we had Labour seizing on initial Ofsted findings for 15 free schools where the ratio of good or outstanding free schools was no higher than the general state ratio. The same day that Labour launched its attack on these new schools, Paul Goodman noted that further Ofsted reports – now covering 24 schools – meant the ratio of them judged good or outstanding had increased from two thirds to three quarters.
A report in the Mirror this morning quotes the Shadow Children's Minister, Sharon Hodgson, denouncing plans for a new Church of England secondary free school for boys, the Fulham School for Boys. She says there is "no need" for it. Local parents disagree. The Conservative MP for Chelsea and Fulham Greg Hands says:
I strongly support plans to open a new Fulham Boys School. A Church of England secondary school for boys could succeed just as the existing Church of England scondary school for girls, Lady Margaret's, does.
This fills a definite need in the area. There is a strong group of local parents working for this project and I am pleased it is making good progress.
The Bishop of Kensington says:
“I am delighted to support the clear and compelling vision that has brought about the foundation of a new Church of England School for boys in Fulham. For centuries the Church has been a pioneer offering outstanding education that is open and accessible to all children. Over 52,000 children are already receiving an inspiring start to life in Church of England schools across the Diocese of London and I am certain that Fulham Boys School will be a valuable addition to this exceptional contribution to the experience of young people across the Capital.”
The proposal from Hammersmith and Fulham Council to find room for this school is a positive one. It doesn't just offer the chance of a better education for secondary school boys but also for primary school children of both sexes.
Two undersubscribed primary schools – Sulivan and New King's – would merge – releasing the Sulivan site for the new free school. The amalgamated primary school will be on the New King's site – which means the Labour Party / National Union of Teachers will present it as takeover or closure of Sulivan rather than a merger.
However, the two sites are very near and "all pupils currently attending Sulivan or New King’s will be guaranteed a place at the amalgamated school if they want it. Sulivan children would transfer to New King’s with their classmates and many of their class teachers, providing as much continuity as possible."
Further, the amalgamated school sounds as though it will be excellent:
As part of its vision to become an outstanding and oversubscribed school, New Kings School has recently approached the council, setting out its proposals to convert to academy status working with Thomas’s London Day Schools, a local independent school trust with an excellent reputation. If the amalgamation proposal goes ahead, following consultation, the council would support New King’s with its academy conversion proposal, working closely with Thomas’s.
The Labour MP for Hammersmith, Andrew Slaughter, is attacking the plans. But when he was the council leader he was for ever going round closing schools. Horder Nursery School – gone. Ellerslie School in Shepherd's Bush – cast aside. St Marks School – abolished. Sherbourne School – a distant memory. All demolished by Mr Slaughter.
Rather than using the sites for replacement schools he preferred to make them into housing, exclusively for social rent. Some felt his motivation was to reduce the proportion of homeowners in the borough as a "gerry mandering" effort. It is not for me to impute base motives. Let us merely note that his policy resulted in a legacy of school place shortages locally
As council leader Mr Slaughter would bestride the borough with his bulldozer
destroying schools. Now he spends his time sneering at sniping at new
schools opening and more school places being provided – notably, of
course, the West London Free School.
Thus Mr Slaughter legacy is being addressed. Parents now expect to have a choice. The Labour Party position, as outlined by Mrs Hodgson, is opposed to any choice at all. Hodgson's choice.
In the Mirror this morning there is a comment from Dennis Charman of the National Union of Teachers complaining that "being a good school is not good enough." A cheap shot would be that Mr Charman never supported a takeover or closure of a school however bad. However, for the borough I live in I think his comment is right. Good is not good enough. There is increasing competition for schools to be excellent. The National Union of Teachers had better get used to it.