For the founders of the West London Free School, of which I was one, last Thursday should have been a moment of great pride. We gathered in the assembly hall, surrounded by the politicians and officials who’d helped us, to celebrate the school’s tenth anniversary and reflect on what we’d achieved. Not only has the school thrived — it is now part of a growing academy chain — but where we led, others followed. As the first school of its type to be approved by Michael Gove, WLFS showed what a determined group of volunteers could achieve, and there are now more than 600 free schools.
Contrary to the predictions of the critics — too many to mention — this is one education policy that seems to have worked. The Department for Education hasn’t published school level GCSE and A-level results for 2020 and 2021, but the 2019 exam data casts free schools in a good light. Seven of the top 15 secondary schools in the country, as measured by how much progress children make between entering the school at 11 and taking their GCSEs, are free schools. Not bad when you consider they make up less than 10 per cent of the total. The average free school gets better results than the average state school — across all age groups — and 31 per cent have been rated outstanding by Ofsted compared with 19 per cent of all other types of state school.
So why was WLFS’s tenth anniversary bittersweet? Because the present government shows every sign of having lost interest in the policy. True, 52 new free schools opened this month and there are a further 206 in the pipeline, but those are mainly the legacy of previous administrations. Both Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson have expressed enthusiasm for free schools — and the Conservatives’ manifesto promised more to come — but in the last spending review no money was allocated to the programme. Will they get a mention in the autumn Budget or the next spending review? I’m not optimistic.
This is partly to do with the pandemic. For better or worse, free schools are perceived as an added extra rather than as essential, and for that reason it would be hard for the government to spend several hundred million on building more instead of allocating that money to catch-up, given that children lost about a third of their learning time during the pandemic. It could do it, of course, but that would require the expenditure of some political capital and that is a resource politicians are more parsimonious with than taxpayers’ money.
Another reason free schools have fallen out of fashion is precisely because they’ve been so successful. The authors of the policy were David Cameron and Michael Gove. That means they can claim the credit and point to free schools as part of their legacy. For the present Prime Minister and Education Secretary, by contrast, there’s little to gain from sticking with them. If free schools continue to thrive, it will reflect well on their predecessors; if they don’t, it will be their fault. Had Cameron and Gove made a hash of the policy, their successors might be tempted to try to make a success of it, but as things stand it’s a case of ‘What’s in it for us?’ This is one of the paradoxes of democratic politics: an unsuccessful policy becomes a hardy perennial, while a successful one is left to wither on the vine.
In the absence of any senior politicians throwing their weight behind free schools, the blob has quietly taken back control. Today, if a local authority has a need for more school places it will cut a deal with a residential property developer — you build us a school and we’ll give you planning permission to build a hideous carbuncle on this greenfield site. The local authority isn’t actually allowed to run the new school, but it gets to choose the provider and that invariably means a plain vanilla academy chain (often run by an ex-official). Groups like the one I led ten years ago, comprised of enthusiastic amateurs, don’t get a look in.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by the fate of the free schools policy. It was genuinely revolutionary in that it took power away from educational ‘experts’ in council offices, most of whom had presided over decades of failure, and handed it to parents and teachers. It led to ten years of successful reform and innovation, but the top-down status quo has inevitably reasserted itself.
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