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Archbishop John Sentamu is wrong about free schools on every count

19 January 2015

2:59 PM

19 January 2015

2:59 PM

John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has never been shy about courting publicity. He frequently churns out controversial opinion pieces for the red-tops and, just in case they don’t receive enough attention, he’s in the habit of re-issuing them as ‘press releases’. (You can see a list of the most recent here).

He has opinions on almost everything, from same-sex marriage (against) to William and Kate’s decision to live together before their wedding (in favour). But with his latest outburst about free schools, the tabloid bishop has jumped the shark.

Free schools, according to Sentamu, only benefit the well-off and divert millions of pounds from more deserving neighbouring state schools. They only appeal to ‘people with means’, he said, and dismissed the concept of school choice as a waste of resources.

‘What should have happened is that the Government should have invested all that money in raising the level of achievement in schools that are less achieving, not by putting in these so-called competing places,’ he said. ‘If I am being very blunt I think it was a sort of failed attempt to create grammars.’

Needless to say, he’s wrong on every count.

Take the charge that free schools only benefit ‘people with means’. According to a data briefing produced by the New Schools Network, free schools are eight times more likely to be located in the most deprived Local Authorities in England than in the least deprived.

Had the Anglican Archbishop made the same comment about Church of England schools he would have been on firmer ground. According to a 2012 report in the Guardian, 74 per cent of CofE primaries and 65.5 per cent of CofE secondaries take fewer pupils eligible for free school meals than the average in their local authority.

It’s also misleading to describe the 200,000 new places created by free schools as ‘competing places’, as if they’re surplus to requirements. Again, 72 per cent of open and approved free schools have been set up in places where there’s a need for new places. Not a need because the existing schools are inadequate; but a need because there are insufficient places in the existing schools.

Given that the vast majority of free schools are providing much-needed new places, it’s nonsense to say they’re diverting money from neighbouring schools. Again, Sentamu would have had a point if he’d trained his fire on Labour’s academy policy. Under the last government’s Building Schools for the Future programme, the average cost of opening a new academy was £28 million. The first 24 free schools, by contrast, cost an average of £5 million each. That’s money that could have been spent fixing the roofs and resurfacing the playgrounds of local authority schools, but Sentamu would have looked a bit silly if he’d said that because one of Labour’s most expensive academies – the Archbishop Sentamu Academy in Hull, which cost £34 million – is sponsored by him.

To quote a source he may be familiar with, ‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?’

As for his claim that the policy is a ‘failed attempt to create grammars’, that’s just downright bizarre. Free schools are bound by the same admissions constraints as non-selective state schools. Many people would dearly love this government to create some new grammar schools, but it has steadfastly refused to do so, calculating that the political cost would be too high. To insist that the government should pay that cost anyway seems a little unfair.

The bishop’s remarks about free schools aren’t a well-informed intervention, but a rehash of the smears put about by the NUT and the Socialist Workers’ Party. I know the Archbishop has a book to promote – a collection of left-wing essays mistakingly claiming that income inequality has increased under this government – but this baseless attack on a flagship coalition policy is just controversy for controversy’s sake. Sentamu is in danger of becoming a national laughing stock – Katie Hopkins in a cassock. Don’t be surprised if he pops up in the next series of Celebrity Big Brother.

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