Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has pledged that free schools will be at the heart of education policy. In terms of the numbers, the growth of free schools has been strong. There are now 444 of them. There are hundreds more in the pipeline.
But the mission to provide innovation and wider choice is not just about numbers. Do free schools have enough freedom? A recent report from the New Schools Network suggests they could and should have more:
“The free schools programme must now return to its original purpose and mission. Recent narrow restrictions on the types of schools that can be approved and the bureaucracy of the application process have hampered the growth of the programme. Innovation and community led schools, which were the driver behind the free schools concept, are completely absent in recent waves. Where highly successful free schools already exist, they are struggling to expand and spread excellence. There is a risk the system is becoming dominated by a few big regional players, creating barriers to unleashing the next wave of innovation in education. In recent years, the policy has continued to see success in niche areas, such as the approval of four new university sponsored 16-19 maths schools and the growth in the number of special school places. Yet the original vision of the mainstream programme, which brought so many benefits to the thousands of children, has disappeared.”
It offers the following recommendations:
- Open 100 new free schools each year, concentrated in areas that have been left behind
- Expand the policy to ensure there is a free school in every local authority
- Encourage new providers to enter the schools system by allowing new single academy trusts to be established, and placing innovation at the heart of the free school assessment process
- Legislate to compel local authorities to set aside land for new free schools and remove the barriers to opening new schools
- A new sponsorship model which brings the benefits of a track record of improvement, new leadership and capital funding to schools which have been stuck in a pattern of underperformance
- Support for small, highly successful free schools to grow their academy trust, sharing their Outstanding practice
- A new, dedicated, AP free school wave to deliver places for vulnerable pupils at risk of gang violence.
It is undeniable that community-led academy trusts have provided some of the most successful free schools. One of them is Michaela, the secondary school in Brent. The founder and headmistress is Katharine Birbalsingh who is an inspirational figure. Boris Johnson is among the visitors who were impressed.
So it is very welcome that the latest batch of approvals, which was for 22 new free schools, included the following:
“Michaela Community School Stevenage- a mixed, non-faith secondary providing 1260 school places for 11-18 year old pupils and will be part of a newly formed multi-academy trust, including Michaela Community School in Brent, judged Outstanding by Ofsted in 2017.”
Other new schools that were announced included Edgar Wood Academy in Rochdale, one of the most deprived areas of the country. The school will be part of the Altus Education Partnership. Its founding school, Rochdale Sixth Form College, has been named as the highest ranked college for value added performance in the country for the past five years.
Newcastle-Upon-Tyne will have the Callerton Academy. This will be led by Gosforth Federated Academies trust, which since 2010 has run the popular and over-subscribed Gosforth Academy, rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.
BOA Stage and Screen Production will be a new 16-19 specialist college in central Birmingham. An offshoot of the successful Birmingham Ormiston Academy, it will offer a highly specialised education in the technical and production side of the performing arts for pupils in the West Midlands.
Looking down the full list we can see that other ones will be opening in Barnsley, Doncaster, Oldham, Liverpool, Salford and St Helens. This is where the greater opportunity is needed the most. These are the areas where all too often parents are not happy with the choices currently available. For many children, these new schools will be transformational for their life chances. Will the local MPs welcome their arrival? Or demand they be closed down?
Boosting free schools is not the only answer. Just as important is to speed along with the forced takeovers of failing schools which are then reborn under new management as “sponsored academies.” The challenges are great in turning round a school. Reputations takes time to recover even if the name is changed and a new head and governing body brought in. On the other hand, at least the building is already there. Finding premises for new schools is the hardest part, which is why the recommendation noted above to force councils to release sites is very sensible. I would also like to see independent schools give a bigger role. The Assisted Places Scheme should be revived. It should also be made easier for new independent schools to start up, which would result in downward pressure on school fees.
The moral and political imperative is to be bold with school reform. Labour, the “enemies of promise”, threatens church schools, free schools, academies, grammar schools and independent schools. The Conservative reply should be to back all these schools. They should be given more freedom and more chance to expand. Then Jeremy Corbyn will find there are plenty of parents, teachers and pupils willing to defend their schools from his attack.