'Now is the time to turbo-charge free schools'

Free schools are a success, writes Unity Howard – but too many disadvantaged parts of the country are yet to benefit

The attainment gap: Scottish local authorities have had their say on the progress being made towards the government's stated aim of closing the poverty-related attainment gap

While the political parties continue to slug it out on the campaign trail in an arms race of eye-catching announcements, behind the scenes the free schools programme quietly continues to gradually build momentum. Just last week, the fourteenth round of new applications came to an end, with the promise of approving 30 new free schools next year.

The applications included a secondary school specialising in performing arts in one of the most deprived areas of Liverpool; a proposal for a third XP school in Gateshead; a secondary grammar school looking to open a primary free school in Gloucester; and many more applications for primary and secondary schools across the country in places like Wolverhampton, Manchester and Oldham. These proposals, if successful, will offer a much-needed shot in the arm of educational innovation to communities across this country.

And while this is “good news”, the simple truth is that even if all 30 proposals are approved, it is nowhere near what is needed to tackle head-on the persistent challenges we face in our education system today. It is a national disgrace that there are over 1.2 million pupils in schools that are not "good" or "outstanding", and around 490 schools that have been judged as "requires Improvement" or "inadequate" in every inspection since 2005.

This means that far too many children will never have the opportunity to attend a good school at any point of their primary or secondary education. Not only that, but according to the Education Policy Institute, it will take a whopping 500 years to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. At best, approving just 30 new schools would risk papering over the cracks of entrenched educational underperformance facing so many communities.

Something has gone badly wrong.

The impact of free schools

Free schools have been shown to be a success and what the 507 free schools open across the country have achieved is remarkable, but this has not gone far enough. We are still playing at the margins.

As voters, we shouldn’t accept that this is "the Brexit election" alone. We must remember that the vote to leave the European Union was, in part, about societal injustices, too.

Take Boston and Skegness, Walsall North and Great Grimsby – some of the strongest leave-voting areas. What have they got in common? Significant educational underperformance. New Schools Network’s analysis has shown that of the 30 constituencies in England with the highest leave vote, 22 are performing below the national average at key stage 2. At secondary, the picture is worse – out of these 30, a staggering 27 of them have Progress 8 below the national average as well.

Whether we leave the EU or not will make not one jot of difference to these results. Voters in these areas – and across the country – deserve more than just being treated as a single-issue electorate.

So at this election we are calling on the next government to put education reform at the heart of its domestic agenda. We want hundreds more new schools approved over the coming years. And, most importantly, we need to prioritise the communities that have been left behind. Communities like Boston, Grimsby and Walsall.

There are 25 council areas that have yet to benefit from a new school – 14 of which are right at the top of the deprivation index, while 18 have Progress 8 scores that lag behind the national average. Parliamentary candidates in each of these areas should be demanding a new school for their constituents. Let’s fast-track these areas, and allow families the same opportunities that have been afforded other parts of the country.

The NEU teaching union’s analysis last week showed how a third of teachers saw reducing class sizes as a top priority for the next government. But when we looked into that data, it was no shock to me that this class growth was concentrated in areas of underperformance. Out of the top 20 constituencies with the largest increase in class sizes since 2010, 70 per cent of these were located in local authorities that perform below the national average at key stage 4 (Progress 8), and 75 per cent of these constituencies have at least 10 per cent of their schools rated "requires improvement" or "inadequate" by Ofsted.

It is precisely these communities that should be at the front of the queue for a new school. Instead of saying to people "this is your lot", we should be saying that if you are not happy you can do something about it. We are going to support them to create something new, that does not have the baggage of the past, that can try new approaches to tackling disadvantage. That is what free schools do.

Our hope is that all parties will commit to our asks and begin reigniting the passion to improve the quality of education in England. This fourteenth round of applications should not be the last. Now is the time to turbo-charge this programme with hundreds of new applications in the coming years. Education has the power to transform lives and it must be at the heart of the next government’s agenda as we look towards a post-Brexit Britain.

Unity Howard is the director of New Schools Network. She tweets at @UnityHoward

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