Let’s galvanise education by pledging to open 100 free schools per year
Free schools are thriving. We must commit to expanding their reach so that it isn’t just a lucky few with access to them, writes Suella Braverman MP
Free schools have helped to turn around the education of our children but the next Conservative Manifesto must commit to taking them from success to scale.
In 2011, I co-founded a free school, Michaela Community School in my hometown of Wembley. We opened in 2014 after several setbacks along the way. Our Outstanding Ofsted rating in 2017 and the transformation of our pupils made it all worthwhile. This summer’s GCSE results placed us in the top 10 schools in the country.
At this pioneering free school we deploy inventive teaching methods, based on a knowledge-based curriculum, and a tough stance on behaviour and discipline, and have made the most of our freedoms. Seeing some children make two, three, four or even five years progress in reading and maths in the space of a year, or others metamorphose from out-of-control and excluded into studious and respectful has only been possible thanks to greater autonomy. Children enjoy a bully-free environment, aim high and their teachers have instilled in them perseverance and stoicism. Visitors from all over the country marvel at what they see,
Michaela is one of the 400 or so free schools around the country. And they are thriving. Despite representing no more than 2% of all schools in England, four out of our top 10 schools in the country are free schools when measured by Progress 8 scores. A free school is 50% more likely to be rated outstanding when compared to other state schools. Disadvantaged children do better at free schools. And there is emerging evidence of the competitive benefit that free schools generate, raising the quality of neighbouring schools with healthy challenge.
Notwithstanding these successes, the pace at which new free schools are entering the education system has slowed to a crawl. In my recent Paper with the Centre for Policy Studies: ‘Fight for Free Schools’, I found that two-thirds of parents do not live within reasonable commuting distance of a free school. The first four years of the programme saw significantly higher opening numbers than the most recent four. There is a serious risk of the policy withering on the vine. The next Conservative Government must re-commit to the Free Schools policy with gusto.
Boris Johnson must commit to expanding the reach of free schools so that it isn’t just a lucky few with access to them. We can create a country where every town has a free school, every parent has real school choice and every child has the chance to thrive.
We can do this in several ways: firstly, broaden the criteria by which free schools are approved. Over the last few years, the government has narrowed the grounds for grant to vicinities where there is a shortfall in places. But this ignores the qualitative value that free schools add. If we really value school choice, we need to provide it; second, free schools need to be located more widely around the country and pro-active outreach can help to identify proposer teams.
New Schools Network carries out this vital work but should be better resourced to do more; third, local planning needs to take account of identifying land for a free school so that it is more readily available; and lastly, we need to increase affordability of free schools by creating a new social impact bond to enable a wide variety of investors to support them.
We have a golden opportunity to galvanise the education of our young people. We are at a turning point and I hope the next Conservative government seizes the initiative to take free schools from success to scale.
Suella Braverman is Conservative MP for Fareham