Jackie Doyle-Price is the MP for Thurrock.
Free Schools will tackle under-provision, increase parental choice and improve social mobility. So what is Labour’s problem – not invented here?
It is a well known but uncomfortable truth that the shift away from grammar schools has reduced the opportunities for bright children from modest backgrounds to get on and get to our best universities. In the bid to equalise opportunity, comprehensivisation had the effect of levelling down the performance of the state sector and widening the gap with the performance of private schools. It led to what one former Downing Street press secretary described as ‘bog-standard’ education.
With no appetite to reintroduce academic selection at 11, we must nonetheless have the opportunity to enable parents to get access to the best education for their children. And we will do that by encouraging diversity in education provision so that parents can exercise choice. In reality, some schools are massively oversubscribed, others massively under, with allocation based simply on postcode. Where is the fairness in that?
There are seven secondary schools in my constituency, all but one an academy, and each one is different. There is an all-girl Convent schoo,l which clearly provides a very different culture to the large co-ed up the road, with a strong emphasis on sport. I have a school which provides a strong focus on discipline and behaviour; another which prioritises the pastoral side of what it does.
Each school provides a very different offering, and children will do best where parents are able to choose an environment that suits their needs. Some children will thrive in a disciplined environment, others will do less well. But to suggest that money spent on new school places is a waste of money is to rob parents of the ability to do the best by their children.
There may be a sufficent quantum of places across a local authority, but that does not reflect the quality of them, nor the proximity to people’s homes. In Thurrock, we have a shortage of school places in the west of the borough, and over-provision in the east. The result is that children in my constituency are allocated school places some distance away, or are forced to go outside the borough, simply because the Council’s definition of supply does not fit with how people lead their lives.
Similarly, the failure by the local education authority to deal with underperfomance simply puts more pressure on places in good schools. Parents should not be expected to put up with poor education simply because LEAs aren’t prepared to take tough decisions. Free schools provide parents with more choice. It cannot be a waste of money to provide better education. Rather, it is poor value for money to fail to tackle underperforming schools and simply expect parents to put up with what they are given. And it will mean that children are less likely to achieve their potential.
There is a case that there are not sufficient free school bids are coming from those areas with real need. 87 per cent of new primary places in free schools are in fact in such areas, not that you would know given the noise made by Labour.
It is also worth noting that anyone can show the leadership to put together a bid. In Chafford Hundred in my constituency, we had under-provision of primary places going back a number of years. I worked with parents and Harris Federation to bring forward a bid for a school that will open this September. Those of us who are in a position of leadership have an obligation to bring together those who can address the problem rather than carp on the sidelines for no other reason than political opportunism. There have been issues of governance, but let us not pretend that there are no weaknesses in the maintained sector.
So while Labour, aided and abetted by the teaching unions, seek to spin Free Schools as ideological zealotry, we must make sure we don’t let them. Their opposition has everything to do with politics and nothing about achieving good outcomes for children. This must always be our priority. I am clear: free schools and academies have been crucial in achieving improving education standards in Thurrock.
If Labour really wanted to improve opportunities for children and encourage social mobility, they would be embracing the opportunities afforded by the Free School programme. Individual MPs and local authorities have done so. But it says everything about the remoteness of the front bench from the people they claim to represent that they cannot see that free schools are key to reversing the decline in social mobility. This programme is the heir to the sponsored academy programme that they started. They should be big enough to admit it.