'Free schools are part of the solution for education. I hope they continue to be so'
When asked, one in four parents would have picked another school for their child given the chance – that represents 1.4 million families across England. Families who don’t have the option to move closer to a better performing school or go private.
Free schools have created much needed new choice for those families and the generations that will follow them – creating 230,000 new places. This is why we co-ordinated a public letter of support signed by over 145 free school founders, principals and governors, urging all of the parties to allow new schools to be set up wherever parents strongly want them.
Those who signed the letter represent more than 125 open or approved free schools. They come from across the political spectrum and put parents and pupils ahead of changes in the political weather. They know that not only are their new schools offering an alternative to local parents, but that they are also making a real impact on the ground helping drive up standards.
No doubt critics will say that such a letter is driven by self-interest. Not so. Politically, no party is saying they will close any free school – or even those that have been approved but not yet opened their doors – so these providers themselves are already “safe”. What matters to them though, is that the ladder is not pulled up behind them, preventing others doing exactly what they have done: listened and responded to what local parents want.
Take Sir Iain Hall, for instance, chair of the Great Schools for All Children Trust. King’s Leadership Academy in Warrington came into being precisely because local parents approached Sir Iain frustrated by the lack of options for their children. And, incredibly, once he presented his vision back to these parents, over 500 parents signed up to voice their support in just seven days.
This type of support is the real engine driving new free schools being set up. But it doesn’t stop there. Once they are open, that support continues and is embedded into the very life of these schools. In many ways free schools are the most accountable in our education system as, on top of all their statutory obligations, they have had to deliver on the commitments they have made to parents. Many are involving parents in their day to day school life such as the Hatfield Community Free School and Hope Community School who offer family style dining at school which parents can attend.
Free schools are establishing themselves quickly in their communities – becoming a popular option. The anxious wait that hundreds of thousands of parents faced earlier this month on National Offer Day for primary school places drew this into sharp focus. Langley Hall Primary which opened in 2011 had 333 applications for 104 places and more applications for Reception than any other school in the local area. Others were similarly oversubscribed, like Boston Pioneers which had 143 applicants for just 60 places.
All of this means that we need even more new schools where parents want and need them, not less. New schools shouldn’t just be a functional response to a paper-based exercise which shows there is a shortage of places. Yes, free schools can help with this, and indeed are doing so. Every single new primary school that opened in London last September was in an area either currently facing a shortage or where that shortage is looming on the horizon. But to focus solely on these areas represents a poverty of ambition. Research shows that not only are free schools themselves performing strongly (they are more than twice as likely to be rated as "outstanding" by Ofsted), but that they have a positive impact on the performance of local schools too; one head ascribed a 25 per cent leap in performance to a free school opening up down the road.
Ultimately, what we are really talking about here is a question of fairness. Parents who cannot afford to move house to secure a good school place deserve to be listened to, not ignored. Free schools have proved they can be part of the solution. I hope they continue to be so.
Natalie Evans is director of the New Schools Network, a charity that helps applicants set up free schools.