By Harry Phibbs
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This morning sees another stage in the free schools revolution. 81 are already open. Another 109 were already approved to open, mostly due to start this September. This morning we have news of a further 102, mostly to open next year.
When full, these free schools will have 130,000 pupils. That is getting to the sort of "critical mass" that would make it hard for the Labour Party to go into the next election with a policy of closing them or emasculating them. The pupils don't have votes but their parents do – as well as their aunts and uncles. By the next election there will be hundreds more free schools scheduled. Many parents will be interested in the choice they offer.
Yet at the moment Labour councils, while complaining about a shortage of school places, tend to use every trick in the book to obstruct free schools.
The Mayor of London Boris Johnson wrote about this in the Evening Standard yesterday:
I have seen with my own eyes how groups of parents and others are now setting up schools that have a universal admissions policy — but a distinctive ethos of achievement and ambition. I have visited schools with smartly uniformed children, and bright, clean buildings, where there is an obvious culture of discipline and respect, combined with a love of learning, sport and the arts.
The majority of these schools are being set up in areas with a severe shortage of places, and nine out of 10 Free Schools are now oversubscribed. Surely to goodness it is obvious that these schools are a good thing and that we need more of them? What is not to like?
That is why it has been worrying recently to hear of some local authorities that are being dog-in-the-mangerish, for reasons that can only be diagnosed as ideological. …
One council that shall remain nameless demanded that a Free School conduct an archaeological survey, even though the site was not regarded as an area of interest. Three large trial pits were dug, and nothing, of course, was found. One of the most vociferous opponents of Free Schools is apparently a full-time National Union of Teachers official who has his salary paid by a London borough and is a member of the Socialist Workers Party.
There is nothing wrong with being a swivel-eyed Leftie loon, of course; but it is ludicrous to campaign simultaneously for more school funding and against new state schools.
Planning rules have recently been changed to help put a stop to some of this nonsense.
The schools approved today include:
- Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts (LIPA) Free School in Liverpool. Its patron is Sir Paul McCartney.
- The East London Academy of Music in Tower Hamlets. This is a teacher-led proposal for post-16 students. It will be led by Sir Nick Williams, the former principal of the BRIT School, the renowned performing arts school.
- National Autistic Society (NAS) Free Schools in Lambeth and Cheshire East.
- A co-educational, Sikh school in Coventry for 4- to 16-year-olds.
- Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Blackburn – one of the oldest independent schools in Lancashire will join the non-selective state sector. The proposal is supported by Jack Straw.
I wonder if Ed Miliband welcomes the proposed XP free school in Doncaster where he is an MP. This school will follow techniques used in charter schools in the USA, with great success. Part of the benefit of free schools is that they have the chance to innovate. In The Guardian the Shadow Schools Minister Kevin Brennan attacks free schools as "pet projects." Does Mr Miliband agree? All but one of the secondary schools in Doncaster are now academies? Does Mr Miliband welcome that?
Education is now, in polling terms, a Conservative issue. When asked which party has the best policies on education Labour used to be stronger on that issue than its general poll rating. That is no longer the case. The point is to look at Party support on that issue relative to the general poll rating. It used to be a good issue for Labour. They had the message that spending more money was the answer. Also that the Tories didn't care about state education as they were on the side of the rich who sent their children independent school. Little by little, bit by bit, that is changing. Gradually people are becoming aware that the Education Secretary Michael Gove does care about state education and that he is being effective in improoving standards.
Education becoming a Tory issue doesn't leave Labour with much. Apart from the health service that they are rather exposed. They already perform badly when measured as the Party judged to have the best policies for the economy, crime, immigration and Europe.
Support for free schools will grow as their success is proven. Labour have got on the wrong side of this issue.
Education Secretary Michael Gove said:
There are many innovators in local communities set on raising standards of education for their children. I am delighted to approve so many of their high-quality plans to open a free school.
Free schools are extremely popular with parents and are delivering strong discipline and teaching excellence across the country.