Suella Braverman is a former DexEU Minister, and is MP for Fareham. She was Chairman of Governors, Michaela Community School, 2013-2017.
Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I was part of a team that founded Michaela Community School in my home town of Wembley. Our goal was to provide something that the existing state schools in the area couldn’t: a rigorous knowledge-based curriculum, high standards of behaviour and accountability, and a strong focus on British values. We accepted 120 pupils in our first intake, and will have more than 800 in a couple of years time. Our first cohort awaits its GCSE results later this month.
Today, Michaela is transforming lives. Many of our children start with below average reading and numeracy levels, speak English as a second language, or have special educational needs. Yet despite these challenges, the school is oversubscribed among parents, rated outstanding by Ofsted, and is producing exceptional outcomes for its pupils.
And it’s down to Conservative Party policy that we – a group of teachers, parents, and community-minded locals – were able to get such a project off the ground in the first place. Michael Gove’s free schools programme, which was designed to increase the supply of good school places by letting groups like ours set up new state-funded schools outside local authority control, set the stage for Michaela and many other schools like it.
It’s now almost eight years since the first wave of free schools opened their doors, and the evidence suggests that they are a huge success. Parents like them: free schools are more likely to be oversubscribed than any other type of state school and have the highest ratio of top-three preferences to places available. The inspectors rate them: free schools are 50 percent more likely to be scored outstanding by Ofsted than other types of school.
And the academic results speak for themselves: despite being only two percent of total schools, free schools are responsible for four of England’s top 10 Progress 8 scores – which measure educational improvement between 11 and 18. Primary free schools have the best Key Stage 1 outcomes, and sixth-form free schools the best A-level results, of any type of state school. Disadvantaged pupils also do better in free schools.
In short, free schools are a Conservative policy that we should be proud to talk about and prepared to build upon. Yet in recent years we have lost enthusiasm for the free schools project, and as a result have allowed one of our most important reforms to run aground. Unless things change, and soon, the whole free schools agenda is at risk of withering on the vine.
The simple fact is that at the current rate of openings, there will be fewer than 500 free schools in England (out of a total of 24,000 schools) by May 2020 – a decade after the reforms began. Assuming the same number of free schools open in the second decade of the programme as the first, only four percent of schools will be free schools by 2030.
Even these projections are beginning to look rather optimistic. The last Government significantly tightened the assessment criteria for the latest wave of applications to open free schools, effectively ruling that they could only open in areas where there was a shortage of school places and results in existing schools were extremely poor.
This isn’t just contrary to the original ethos of the free schools programme – that we need a surplus of school places if choice and competition are going to be meaningful concepts within state education. Given current demographic trends, it also means that the free schools programme is likely to grind to a halt in most parts of England in the years ahead – even as parents across the country struggle to get their children into their first choice schools.
That’s why my new report for the Centre for Policy Studies – published today – calls on the government to turbocharge its commitment to free schools. We must abandon the timid approach of the previous administration and double-down on success.
First of all, let’s allow free schools to open anywhere where attainment in existing schools is below average. But more than that, let’s also accept applications that show an innovative and potentially useful approach to learning, and which have significant levels of community and parental support.
We need to get back to the founding principles of the free schools movement: that education should be demand-led, and responsive to the particular needs of an area. From the community, for the community; that is the real beauty of free schools.
Secondly, I realise that opening new schools can be an expensive business. That’s why my report for the CPS examines ways to reduce costs to the taxpayer, and bring more private funding into the free schools sector. Third, I make the case for a new system of peer review for free schools. And lastly, we need a renewed effort to reach out to potential school founders – especially in those parts of the country that suffer from chronic educational under-performance.
Ultimately, having founded a free school myself, I know the difference they can make to children’s lives. The free schools programme is a wonderful achievement, but we are not doing enough to build on our own success. With a new government now in place, we need to fight for free schools so that they remain at the heart of our educational agenda – and do all we can to support those who want to establish them.