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.