Barnaby Lenon, chair of governors at the London Academy of Excellence and former head master of Harrow, writes:
The Labour manifesto launched yesterday commits to the abolition of the free-school programme while simultaneously promising that new schools will be created. These proposed new schools will be commissioned by directors of school standards, who will be responsible for actively encouraging innovative bids from established providers, good local authorities, parents, teachers and entrepreneurs.
As a free-school founder, this process for creating new schools sounds remarkably familiar. A move to regional decision-making and building free schools began happening under the coalition government. Moreover, most of us got involved in setting up a new school precisely because we knew it was needed and we thought we could offer something new and innovative. The politicisation of the free-schools programme is depressing to all who simply want to improve the education of young people in our local communities.
Since becoming chairman of governors at the London Academy of Excellence (LAE), a free school in east London, I have been attacked for supporting what is already one of the most successful schools in England.
LAE was set up three years ago to address the shortage of schools offering A-levels in the London Borough of Newham. Our aim was to transform the exam results and university entry record of the area.
Setting up a new school with no track-record and no building is incredibly difficult. We were lucky to have sponsorship from HSBC, which allowed us to hold open days in its offices in Canary Wharf. We converted five floors of an old office block close to the Olympic stadium, costing the taxpayer £4 million – good value for money for a school with over 400 pupils (in fact free schools across the board have cost 45 per cent less than those set up under previous school building programmes). Six independent schools kindly agreed to support us in one or two subjects each – they lent us staff, experience and teaching resources. We are also supported by tremendous governors from three universities: Oxford, King’s College London and University College London.
We decided to offer only the academically most demanding A-level subjects because these are the ones most likely to lead to entry to top universities. But we feared the price we would pay was reduced demand from students. We started by offering twelve subjects, so had to appoint twenty specialist teachers from the word go. That meant that in the first year we had to find at least 200 students.
We should not have worried: we were full from day one and have over 2,000 applicants for entry this coming September. We were one of the first free schools to get A-level results last summer and the DfE performance measure – the percentage of pupils gaining grades AAB or better in facilitating subjects – placed us in the top one per cent of the maintained sector in England.
Of course, we should have rigorous debate about the whys and wherefores of creating new schools but, despite the divisive language, everyone knows that they are needed because of the growing number of children. The free-school programme has established an effective, relatively quick route to do this that also represents good value for money.
Those who criticise free schools focus on the tiny number of failures and ignore the achievements of the great majority. There are over 400 free schools open or in the pipeline and when full they will provide 230,000 new school places. Over three-quarters (76 per cent) are in areas with a projected lack of places. Most have been built in areas of disadvantage. They have outperformed other types of school in terms of the top Ofsted inspection grade. Only a tiny number have faced significant issues and they have been dealt with quickly and effectively.
The big difference between the main parties revolves around whether new schools should only be set up in areas where there is a shortage of places. This might seem sensible at first glance, but it is a gross oversimplification. I agree that we should not be setting-up schools on a whim but in areas where the only choice for parents is underperforming schools, sometimes a new arrival is best for the whole area. In fact, early evidence already shows that at both primary and secondary level, a new free school has driven up the results of the lowest-performing schools nearby.
Although they are trying to draw a political dividing line, Labour’s manifesto suggests to me that they and their Tory opponents disagree on the detail rather than the principle of encouraging new schools run by new providers. Surely it is possible to have a sensible debate on things like the weighting given to different types of ‘need’ for a new school without decrying the work and achievements of the teachers, parents, charities and schools that created these 400 new schools?
I would also suggest that Labour think again about the support that groups might need if they truly want to attract the most innovative school providers. Of the genuinely ‘new’ providers that get through the rigorous application process to set up a new school, most will have worked with the advice charity New Schools Network – those applying without this help struggle to navigate the red tape and fall at the first hurdle. If we want new, innovative schools to succeed, they are going need support from an independent body to give them the best possible start.