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'Mary Bousted, you're dead wrong about free schools'

Free school founder and champion Toby Young responds to Mary Bousted's damning critique of the free school programme

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Free school founder and champion Toby Young responds to Mary Bousted's damning critique of the free school programme

I was disappointed to read Mary Bousted’s unpleasant and divisive article about free schools. I wonder if she paused for a second to think about the impact of her words on the thousands of teachers who work at free schools and whom, in many cases, have helped set them up?

Two-thirds of free schools have been established by groups led by teachers, many of them members of the ATL or the NUT teaching unions. It cannot be great for morale to know that the soon-to-be joint leader of your union thinks the school you have been pouring your heart into is an example of “our worst fears realised”.

Mary has the gall to characterise anyone who questions her objections to free schools as indulging in “post-truth” politics, and, in the next breath, implies that free schools are more likely to be closed than other schools. In fact, in the last five years 1.71 per cent of maintained schools have closed, compared to just 1.43 per cent of free schools. If Mary is genuinely concerned about the impact of school closures on children, that would be a reason to support the free schools programme, where the rate of attrition is below average, not oppose it.

Mary claims that “too many free schools” have “become mired” in “educational underperformance”, overlooking the fact that the externally validated test results of free schools are above average. To take just one example, in the free school sixth forms that posted A-level results last year, 27.8 per cent of pupils got AAB or better, compared to a national average of 19.9 per cent.

One of the schools responsible for this astonishing achievement is the London Academy of Excellence in Newham, the fourth most deprived borough in London, whose students are currently sitting on 20 offers from Oxford and Cambridge. 

Mary dwells on “free school failures”, but 29 per cent have been rated "outstanding" by Ofsted, compared to a national average of 21 per cent and just 19 per cent of the council-run schools so beloved of the teaching unions; only seven free schols in total are currently "inadequate". Even if you count university technical colleges and studio schools as free schools, which critics of the programme are keen to do, the percentage that are "outstanding" is still above average (25 per cent).

On and on she goes, regurgitating the fake news the teaching unions have been pumping out about free schools since their inception.

She claims that free schools are “prohibitively expensive” and create “surplus places” – those old chestnuts – invoking the “Conservative-dominated” Public Accounts Committee as a witness for the prosecution. 

In fact, free schools cost nearly a third less per square metre than new schools built under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme (according to the National Audit Office) and over 80 per cent of free schools opened or approved to open since 2014 are in areas where there is a demographic need for more places (according to the DfE).

As for the Public Accounts Committee report, Mary neglects to mention that the PAC is led by the Labour MP Meg Hillier and she rushed out the document in question alongside seven other reports over a 48-hour period, leaving the Conservative members of the committee with very little time to read it. It was a piece of Labour Party electioneering, not a serious contribution to the debate about school funding.

Finally, Mary says she would like to see free schools and academies placed under local authority control as if everything was rosy before the evil Michael Gove started exposing our public education system to “the vagaries of the market”. 

But she is ignoring the fact that there are 1.8 million more children being educated at "good" or "outstanding" schools today than there were in 2010, even though two-thirds of secondaries and one fifth of primaries are now academies. 

It is also worth noting that the number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university is higher in England today, after seven years of Conservative education secretaries, than ever before.

And if local authorities are such marvellous custodians of taxpayer-funded schools, how can Mary explain why a fifth of children left school in 2009 unable to read, write or add up? That was a piece of data uncovered by a team of researchers from the University of Sheffield commissioned by the last Labour government. Not coincidentally, the same is true of Scotland today, which has staunchly resisted the education reforms south of the border.

No doubt Mary would like the English school system to be more like that of Wales, which has been run by Labour since 2003. No academies, no free schools, not even any league tables. Hooray! Yet Wales is, by some distance, the lowest-performing region in the UK, having been level-pegging with England 15 years ago.

No, Mary, it is not “post-truth” to describe your objections to free schools as “ideological and backward-looking”. It was the only true thing in your article.

Toby Young is free schools founder. He tweets @toadmeister

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