Rachel Wolf is Director of the New Schools Network, the national charity which supports Free Schools and helps groups set them up.
Over the next fortnight a genuinely new policy – one which has faced sustained opposition and attack – is being implemented across the country. For the first time 24 ‘Free Schools’ will open, paving the way for hundreds more in the next few years. This change will radically improve the opportunities for huge numbers of families.
The importance of this, just one year into a new government, should not be underestimated. Anyone interested in British politics will know that change is invariably promised, but rarely delivered. Despite dozens of think tank publications and endless visionary speeches, the real world – a world of compromise – intrudes. Policies get watered down, vested interests take hold, and change vanishes. Not this time.
Inspired by the success of the Charter School movement in the US, Free Schools take power away from politicians and put it in the hands of parents. They offer parents greater choice and give freedom to teachers to run schools as they see fit.
Until now, if you were a parent unhappy with your child’s school you effectively had two options. First, you could pay thousands of pounds in school fees. Second, you could move to the right catchment area. Of course, good state schools raise house prices, so you’d have to be able to afford the mortgage. For an ordinary family with limited means, these are not choices at all.
With free schools, there’s a third option. Parents will be able to come together to help create good new schools locally – usually asking groups of teachers or education charities to establish one in their area. We have already worked with hundreds of groups planning new schools.
But it is not just about expanding capacity. Free schools will also have far more power than traditional, local authority schools in running their own affairs. They have more control over what they actually teach children. Many are opting for longer school days and years, or returning to more traditional curricula. Others are using the community to deliver lessons – for example the Norwich Free School, opening this week, has persuaded Norwich Football Club to deliver PE. They also have greater freedom over teacher recruitment and budgets.
Inevitably, driving reform is hard and the last year has been difficult for many. Some of the groups we work with have faced enormous – and vicious – opposition. Teachers’ unions and many local authorities have criticised the plans and done their best to stop them. Some have faced unpleasant personal attacks in the national and local media. That makes the reformers’ achievements more impressive.
It has been an inspiration working with these schools over the last year and helping them turn their plans into reality. Take Sajid Hussain, a teacher in Bradford opening up a school specialising in Maths and Science in one of the city’s less affluent areas. Or Patricia Sowter, an outstanding head who is setting up a new primary school in one of the most deprived parts of London so that the pupils who don’t get into her existing school have the same superb education.
24 schools will not change the world, but it is a start, and you do have to start somewhere. By the end of this Parliament there could be hundreds of schools – providing government continues to push through reform. Most importantly, if you are desperately unhappy with your school, and with the chances your children are being given, there is now an alternative. And all schools will have to raise their game because they know that all parents, not just the rich, have options.
Change can happen. In education, I believe it already has.