Even I was taken aback when, during the election campaign, David Cameron pledged to create 500 new free schools if the Conservatives won a majority. Was he being serious? Five hundred is twice the number that opened during the last parliament and, to be frank, some of those probably shouldn’t have done. Two have closed already — the Discovery New School and the Durham Free School — and a few more will probably shut before 2020. Was this just intended as another negotiating chip for use in the coalition talks in the event of a hung parliament?
I don’t think so. I bumped into Cameron at a party in July and the first thing he said to me was that he wanted to keep the momentum of the free schools programme going. He’s in deadly earnest about it. When he retires in five years’ time, he wants to be able to point to 750 new schools as part of his legacy.
In spite of the teething problems, there’s no doubt it has been a successful programme to date. Yes, two have closed, but that’s quite a low rate of attrition considering that 255 are still open. And those that have opened are above average, according to Ofsted. A quarter of the free schools it has inspected so far are ‘Outstanding’, compared to just 10 per cent of schools overall.
Critics complain that they cost too much, are being set up in areas where they’re not needed and only cater to middle-class families. In fact, the average cost of setting up a free school is less than a quarter of the average cost of setting up a new secondary under Labour, 70 per cent of them are in areas where there’s a basic need for more places and free schools are eight times more likely to be opened in England’s most deprived areas than the least.
Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that free schools are an untested experiment. Supporters argue that it’s only by trying out new approaches that we can find out what works and bring about system-wide improvements. Of course some free schools will fail, but if the majority succeed and pass on important lessons to other schools about how to boost attainment, then the experiment is worthwhile.
The school I co-founded in 2011 — the West London Free School — has introduced an innovative curriculum that teaches children a core body of knowledge across a range of traditional subjects. All children, no matter what their background or ability, study Latin for the first three years and go on to do GCSEs in English, maths, the sciences, history or geography, and an ancient or modern foreign language. Will this prove too challenging for some of the lower-ability children? We won’t know until our first cohort of pupils take their GCSEs next year, but I’m optimistic.
Those free schools that have already posted exam results have done remarkably well. Last year, the London Academy of Excellence in Newham — a sixth-form that opened in 2012 — got better A-level results than Wellington College, with five pupils going on to Oxbridge. Another great advertisement for the programme is the Ark Conway Academy — the nearest free school to my home in Acton. In spite of being in one of the most deprived areas in London, Ark Conway got the best Key Stage 1 results in England last year, beating not just every other state primary, but every fee-paying pre-prep as well. What’s remarkable about this is that many independent schools for this age group are academically selective, whereas Ark Conway takes all-comers. It’s unlikely that all free schools will do as well as these two, but I’m confident that their results will be good enough to justify the Prime Minister’s faith.
So will his goal of opening 500 additional free schools in this parliament be achieved? At present, there are 53 in the pipeline, so that means another 447. The officials I’ve spoken to at the Department for Education are worried that they won’t get enough high-quality applications to meet that target, but they hope to get close. If anyone reading this is thinking about submitting a proposal, I’d urge them to do it, not least because they’ll be pushing at an open door. Their first port of call should be the New Schools Network (www.newschoolsnetwork.org).
My group has now opened three free schools and we hope to open three more by 2017. I’ve written a best-seller, appeared in the West End in a one-man show and co-produced a Hollywood movie, but this is easily the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. Everyone wants a legacy, not just the Prime Minister, and I can think of few more worthwhile than helping to create a chain of really good schools that transform the life chances of all their pupils.
The West London Free School Primary, which Toby Young co-founded in 2013, has just been ranked ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted.