Damian Hinds is Education Secretary and MP for East Hampshire.
In the cut and thrust of political dialogue, it is unsurprising that the opposition oppose. In instances where there is cross-party consensus it is often because, despite initial sceptism, an idea works out. It improves things for people.
I truly believe that people get into politics, whatever party they choose, to improve things. And I’ll tell you a secret: I like Angela Rayner. Whilst we have sparred at the despatch box, I respect her as a committed politician, and she has always struck me as kind, thoughtful, hard-working and engaging.
That’s why I was so struck by the recklessness of her speech yesterday to the Labour Party conference. If the party gains power, she has now pledged to “start by immediately ending the Tories’ academy and free schools programmes. They neither improve standards nor empower staff or parents.” I’m sorry – but this is just plain wrong. The reforms of the last eight years show that autonomy and freedom in the hands of brilliant leaders and outstanding teachers can deliver an excellent education.
Let’s look at what the academies and free school programme has actually done to our education system. Half a million children now study in a good or outstanding sponsored academy, which was typically a previously failing school. Of the schools taken out of local authority control and made into a sponsored academy, 65 per cent have seen their grades improve from inadequate to either good or outstanding. These were the schools that had been left to fail for decades – the ones that no one wanted their kids to go to, but had no choice.
The very basis of the free school programme is to empower parents and teachers who want to set up their own school. We now have 450 of them, and they are among the highest performing state-funded schools in the country. Nearly half of those that have opened are in the 30 per cent most deprived areas in the country, and stats last year showed us that, by the end of their GCSEs, pupils in secondary free schools had made more progress on average than pupils in other types of schools.
The academies and free schools programme has been a success – it has vastly improved school standards in this country and provided choice for parents. It is a sorry comment on the Labour Party today that it lets ideology get in the way of improving education for our children.
Returning these schools back to local authority control would be to turn the clock back on the successful education reforms we have enacted. It would be to turn the clock back on the 1.9 million more children at good or outstanding schools. It would be to turn the clock back on the improvements we have made in early literacy – climbing back into the world top ten for primary school reading. It would be to turn the clock back on parents having more choice over the school their child goes to. It would be to turn the clock back on our success at narrowing the gap between the rich and poor at every level from pre-school to university.
And never let Labour forget what they oversaw last time they were in power – grade inflation, even as we fell down the international league tables in reading, maths and science; 100,000 school places were cut; and, in a survey of rich nations, we were the only one in which the literacy and numeracy of young adults was no better than the generation about to retire.
If Labour can’t see that our reforms are improving the education of our young people then they are kidding themselves. Indeed, Labour’s approach under Corbyn goes further than just opposing successful Conservative policy. Even New Labour knew the value in starting to free up underperforming schools from local education authority control. Rayner wants the Blair-era academies back in the “mainstream public sector”, as she puts it, as well. Does Labour really think parents will thank them?
There is a difference between opposing something for opposition’s sake and denying the good that reforms are doing because you tribal ideology stands in the way. Labour’s proposals would mean that the progress we have seen over the last 8 years would be sacrificed – and it is our kids that would pay the price.