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The government should think again before scrapping its free schools plan

On the front page of today’s Times it says ministers are thinking of scrapping the free schools policy in order to give more money to schools. I hope it’s not true. Not only would it constitute a terrible loss of self-confidence on the Government’s part and confirm the narrative that the Conservatives are enacting Labour’s manifesto rather than their own. It would also be a betrayal of the thousands of people who’ve set up free schools and are in the process of setting them up. We have taken on the educational establishment and put our necks on the line at the behest of successive Conservative Education Secretaries. Are they really going to abandon us now?

It would be particularly insane to throw the policy out the window at this point as it is just beginning to bear fruit. Free schools are more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted than council-run schools, more popular with parents and getting better results. To give just one example, the King’s College London Mathematics School, a free school in Kennington, topped a new league table published last week showing A level results in STEM subjects.

Free schools are also the most cost-effective way of delivering much-needed new school places – and according to the Government’s own calculations it will need 174,000 primary places and 284,000 secondary places by 2020. It is a myth that free schools are being opened where they’re not needed. The Department for Education estimates that more than 80 per cent of the free schools opened or approved to open since 2013 are in areas where there’s a demographic need for more places, with three times as many being in England’s most deprived areas as the least deprived.

How else will the Government create new school places? One alternative is to encourage local authorities to expand their existing schools, but the difficulty with this is that they have a track record of doing that in failing schools. In the 2015-16 academic year, more than 7,500 primary school places were created in schools rated Requires Improvement or Inadequate by Ofsted, while 3,678 secondary school places were created in equivalent schools. Over the five-year period before that, 71,000 school places were created in failing primary schools, with an additional 42,000 in failing secondary schools.

Nor is it practical to expect local authorities to expand successful schools. Since 2009, 444,337 additional new places have been created in schools that are Good or Outstanding and there is little or no room for them to take any more. Forcing these schools to expand by such a large amount has created enormous pressure, making it difficult for them to maintain standards. For instance, Acton High School was rated Good in 2013 and since then has been forced by Ealing Council to take in an additional 200 pupils. In its most recent Ofsted inspection earlier this year it was rated Inadequate. In the past year, over 50 schools have seen their Ofsted ratings fall from Good or Outstanding to Inadequate as they have been forced to accommodate more pupils.

If the Government wants to save money when it comes to new schools, it can do that without scrapping the free schools programme. The most cost-effective way of setting up a new free school is to allow it to open on the site of an existing school. This is a common way of setting up charter schools in America. For instance, in New York City so many charter schools have been allowed to open like this that 300,000 of the city’s students attended school in a building hosting more than one school in 2013.

Rather than expand local authority schools that have been rated Requires Improvement or Inadequate in areas with a demographic need for new places, why not allow free schools to be set up on the sites of those schools instead? In America this has sometimes led to tension between the two co-located schools, but it has also led to collaboration, with an exchange of best practice. See here, for example.

There is one final reason why the Conservatives should not abandon the policy. There is now a chance – not a high chance, but a chance nonetheless – that Jeremy Corbyn will be our next Prime Minister. We should be in no doubt that his government will make life as difficult as possible for free schools – Labour said as much in its manifesto. People like me will be in the trenches, doing our best to defend these fantastic schools. Without the Conservatives by our side, what hope do we have? The Corbynistas and their storm-troopers will be able to point to this U-turn and say, “Even your own side has abandoned you.”

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