I’m not surprised the Chancellor allocated more money for the free schools policy in the Budget. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s the most successful education policy of the last 25 years.
To begin with, free schools have proved to be a cost-effective way of meeting the need for additional places. This was underlined in the National Audit Office’s recent report on school capital, which said that on a like-for-like basis, they cost 29 per cent less than new schools built under Labour’s ‘Building Schools for the Future’ programme. Given that the Department for Education has estimated that we will need 420,000 additional places between 2016 and 2021, it makes sense for as many of these as possible to be in new free schools.
Then there’s the fact that they’re generally of a high quality. Free schools for 16-to-19-year-olds are particularly good, like the London Academy of Excellence in Newham, where 20 students received offers from Oxford and Cambridge this year. They’ve also proved to be a hit with parents. In 2015, secondary free schools attracted an average of 3.5 applicants per place, compared with an average of 2.3 applicants per place in local authority schools.
Some critics claim that too many free schools are built in areas where they are not needed. However, the Department for Education estimates that 83 per cent of those approved to open since 2013 will provide places that meet demographic need. While it’s true that a small minority of free-school places don’t do this, parents wouldn’t be able to exercise any choice without some spare capacity.
It was the lack of choice in Acton that prompted me to help set up the West London Free School. I wanted my four children to have the kind of education I’d had in the last grammar school year of a state school in north London. Looking around my neighbourhood, there were some good comprehensives, but they were either faith schools or had such tiny catchment areas that you practically had to live within the school gates to get a place. So, as readers of this column will know, I got together with a group of local parents and teachers and we set up the first free school to sign a funding agreement with Michael Gove. Today, it’s one of the most popular schools in the country, with 11 applicants for every place, and its GCSE results put it in the top 5 per cent of England’s secular co–educational comprehensives.
Thanks to the extra £320 million for free schools announced yesterday, a further 110 can now be set up, in addition to 500 already budgeted for, which means that hundreds of thousands of children will soon have the same opportunities as mine. If you add those to the 429 that have already opened, 1,000 free schools will have been set up just ten years after my little platoon first secured its bridgehead in 2011. The war isn’t over, but victory is in sight.
It looks as if some of these new free schools will be grammars, assuming Theresa May can get the ban lifted. My view on selective schools is that there really isn’t any need for them in areas already well served by good comprehensives. The evidence shows that high-ability children do no better at grammars than they do in the top 25 per cent of comps, and that remains true if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But in areas with mediocre or poor state secondaries, I think there’s a strong case. It doesn’t seem right that a bright child in one of these areas should be denied the opportunities available to a bright child living near a good school. You could argue that it would be better to end the injustice by improving the local sink comprehensive, but it’s hard to fob parents off with ‘jam tomorrow’, particularly when their own children will be too old to benefit. I didn’t buy that argument in Acton, so it would be hypocritical of me to make it now that my children are OK.
What a journey it’s been. I’m now the head of a charity that helps groups set up free schools, and I want to see more of them established in cities like Birmingham and Manchester, as well as ‘Opportunity Areas’ like Stoke and Doncaster. Extending parental choice to all parts of the country is essential if we’re going to heal the divisions laid bare by the EU referendum.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.