'National Offer Day shows us we need more free schools'

The free school programme gives heads the opportunity to relieve the pupils places crisis, argues one school leader

free schools

Every year on National Offer Day, many students miss out on their first choice. In areas with plenty of good schools this is not such an issue, but in other areas the standard of secondary education is much more of a lottery.

In Bradford back in 2008, our single school, Dixons City Academy, could offer places to only one in 10 of those who applied. A decade on, we have taken on two failing secondary schools as sponsored academies and now have three secondary free schools: Dixons Trinity Academy, Dixons McMillan Academy and Dixons Kings Academy. We can now offer a place at a Dixons academy to more than half of those who apply. I know there is still work for us to do, but I'm proud of the impact that the Dixons Academies Trust, among several others, has had to date across the city.

Nor are we just working in Bradford. I am proud that Dixons has expanded into Leeds and that the all-through Dixons Trinity Chapeltown will be instrumental in bringing the same success as our other schools to a new city. However, this is only the third free school with an 11-16 element to open in inner-city Leeds. This will not be enough by itself: the problem is too big for a few school groups to solve on their own.

This is why we need more great schools. Over the past few years, there has been growing attention paid to the north/south divide and a real acknowledgement that we need more school groups committed to making a difference where it matters most. It is good to see this is now more widely recognised, but admitting that there is a problem is only the first step.

We know that free schools can be key to meeting demand in areas where students are regularly disappointed. For last September at the school I founded, Dixons Trinity Academy, we had more than twice as many potential students list us as their first choice than we had places available. This year, Dixons Trinity Academy received 1,527 applications for our 112 available places, with 330 families putting the school as their first choice. In Chapeltown, despite being new to the area and in temporary accommodation, 327 families applied and first choices could have filled our 112 places. While this is a ringing endorsement of the work we've done to date, it still means there are more students out there than we can help.

I'm confident that the students coming to our schools are going to receive a high quality education, but there are still too many who will miss out. We don't want to expand too far, too fast, and risk damaging our existing offer. I know there are many other great schools in the North of England who can meet this challenge and open a free school of their own.

That is why I'm calling on other school leaders to look back at the lives they have already changed and take the next step. There are just too many parts of the country where students who miss out on their chosen school will receive an education that is not good enough. The free school programme offers us the chance to change that.

Free schools have had their criticisms, and some of those are absolutely justified, but a central feature of the programme is that school leaders can step up and massively increase their impact. I know that times are hard and budgets are stretched, but I would ask everyone reading this to think through how much more they could achieve with another school.

There are additional benefits for school groups that expand through this process. You can offer greater opportunities to develop your staff and your schools have more chances to engage with, support and learn from each other. Most important, though, is the chance to offer your provision to more students.

There is no silver bullet for school success, but setting up a school from scratch is a great opportunity to shape your chosen culture from the start. This means you can build the environment you want from the very beginning and watch the school take shape in front of your eyes.

The window for new free school applications is open at the moment and is explicitly targeting communities with high levels of social and educational disadvantage. Of course, this is not just in the north, but there is certainly an increased desire to make sure these new schools are set up in areas where the need is greatest.

These are the areas where students now know they'll be going to schools they did not choose. Every child should be excited when they find out where they will be going to school, but today that will not be the case. I'm calling on colleagues across the country to embrace this challenge.

Luke Sparkes is executive principal of Dixons Trinity in Bradford

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