Without LAs, how can we open schools where most needed?

Free schools should open where the need is greatest, says Bernard Trafford. But remote multi-academy trusts won’t do this

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In The Times’ Thunderer column on 17 October, former minister of state for education David Laws wrote about a detailed analysis of official data for free schools by the Education Policy Institute, which he chairs. The headline, “New free schools cannot neglect left-behind areas”, summarises his and the EPI’s concern.

Secondary free schools achieve the best learning progress of any school type, he says, but free primaries don’t. Free primaries tend to be located where the need for additional school places is greatest, but not secondaries. 

Mr Laws’ worry is focused less on the siting of free schools than on the nature of the children who attend them. To be sure, the poorest children are as likely as any others to attend free schools.

But he fears they tend to come from poor but aspiring, high-achieving ethnic and immigrant groups, who do very well in school. Those from “challenged white” and “hampered” communities (his quotes) are seriously underrepresented. 

Model and challenge

His conclusion? Secondary free schools do well because they’re mostly in areas where all the schools do well: there aren’t enough free schools in “left behind” white working-class areas. His demand of government is to tackle the latter problem.

I don’t have access to official data, but I know one primary free school very well, because I helped to found it. It offers both a model and a challenge for the future development of the free-schools programme.

West Newcastle Academy (WNA), founded seven years ago in Benwell, one of the poorest wards in Newcastle upon Tyne, is a thriving one-form-entry free primary, now housed in a fine new building high above the Tyne river. An innovative curriculum, outstanding outreach and pastoral care and a child-centred, positive can-do attitude have rendered this recent arrival a prized choice of school for parents, which could provide a model for others. 

Even when shipbuilding, engineering, coal and steel were booming on the Tyne, West Newcastle was always the poor end of the Toon. Nowadays, Benwell provides homes for refugees and for a significant immigrant community, but remains significantly both “left-behind” and “challenged white”, in EPI’s terms. 

Supporting disengaged children

Nowadays I live five hours’ drive from WNA, but still visit when I can. Last week I watched children leaving at the end of the day, and would say at a glance that they reflected the school’s setting.

Moreover, from my experience of working with the headteacher, I know that WNA’s admissions policy answers David Laws’ concern. The policy prioritises need and proximity; the school is popular in its community and is full every year. Together, these two points ensure that it really does reach out to the educationally – not merely economically – disadvantaged.

So how did this particular free school come into being? The inspiration came from a charity, Kids and Us, long-established and deeply embedded in Benwell, with the aim of supporting disengaged children and their families. Kids and Us saw the free-schools programme as an opportunity to create a school that would connect and support these families. 

WNA is thus both the charity’s creation and its legacy. It shrewdly recruited local expertise: then running a large independent school in the city, I was brought on board, along with two other experienced heads, and the project became a reality. 

It’s hard to see how a group of parents, working on their own in a disadvantaged community, could achieve that aim. It’s almost as hard to picture a remote MAT having the reach and local knowledge to do so.

Where they are most needed

Local authorities might usefully replicate the local focus that Kids and Us provided in the creation of WNA. Sadly, they are no longer permitted to create new schools, and must instead ask MATs and federations to do it for them. 

David Laws rightly urges the government to site future free schools in areas where they are most needed, not only “where education reformers decide to pitch their tent”. 

But, by squeezing local authorities out of its educational vision, government is excluding the one structure best placed to deliver on his challenge.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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