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Free Schools Policy

Volume 512: debated on Monday 21 June 2010

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement on the free schools policy, which was announced in a press notice on Friday 18 June.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for this opportunity to update the House on our progress on reducing bureaucracy in the schools system, giving more power to front-line professionals and accelerating the academies programme, which was begun with such distinction under Lord Adonis and Tony Blair.

During the Queen’s Speech debate, I outlined in detail our plans to extend academy freedoms. I mentioned then that we had more than 1,000 expressions of interests from existing schools. I can now update the House by confirming that more than 1,700 schools have expressed an interest in acquiring academy freedoms, with more than 70% of outstanding secondary schools contacting my Department—a remarkable and heartening display of enthusiasm by front-line professionals for our plans. As I have explained before, every new school acquiring academy freedoms will be expected to support at least one faltering or coasting school to improve. We are liberating the strong to help the weak—a key principle behind the coalition Government.

As well as showing enthusiasm for greater academy freedoms in existing schools, teachers are enthusiastic about the opportunities, outlined in our coalition agreement, to create more great new schools in areas of disadvantage. More than 700 expressions of interest in opening new free schools have been received by the charitable group the New Schools Network, and the majority of them have come from serving teachers in the state school system who want greater freedom to help the poorest children do better.

That action is all the more vital, because we inherit from the previous Government a schools system that was as segregated and as stratified as any in the developed world. In the most recent year for which we have figures, out of a school cohort of 600,000, 80,000 children were in homes entirely reliant on benefits, and of those 80,000 children only 45 made it to Oxbridge—less than 0.1% and, tellingly, fewer than those who made it from the school attended by the Leader of the Opposition.

Given that scale of underachievement, it is no surprise that so many idealistic teachers want to start new schools, such as those American charter schools backed by President Obama, which have closed the achievement gap between black and white children. In order to help teachers do here what has been achieved in America, we announced last week that we would recreate the standards and diversity fund for schools, started by Tony Blair and abandoned under his successor. We are devoting to that fund £50 million saved from low-priority IT spending—less than 1% of all capital spending allocated for this year—and we are sweeping away the bureaucracy that stands in the way of new school creation, with the reform of planning laws and building regulations.

Five years ago, the then Prime Minister said outside this House:

“What we must see now is a system of independent state schools, underpinned by fair admissions and fair funding, where teachers are equipped and enabled to drive improvement, driven by the aspirations of parents.

We have pushed higher standards from the centre: for those standards to be maintained and built upon, they must now become self-sustaining to provide irreversible change for the better.”

That is the challenge that Mr Blair laid down, and this coalition Government intend to meet it.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for coming to the House, because his free school policy raises important issues of funding, fairness and standards—and it should not have been smuggled out in a Friday morning press statement. I should also say that Lord Hill has written to my colleagues in the other place confirming that the Academies Bill will, in fact, be enabling legislation for free schools. The Secretary of State should have the courtesy to inform this House, and those on the Opposition Front Bench, of his plans in that regard.

On funding, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm not only that his free school policy will establish a free market in school places, in which parents will be encouraged to set up taxpayer-funded new schools at will, but that he has secured no new money at all from the Treasury to pay for it? Will he confirm that he is using savings from cutting free school lunches for poorer children to fund his announced £50 million of start-up support, and that that is a drop in the ocean compared with the billions involved in the actual cost of his new policy?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm Professor David Woods’s finding that the proposal for a new parent-promoted school in Kirklees would

“have a negative impact on other schools in the area in the form of surplus places and an adverse effect on revenue and capital budgets”?

The question is whether existing schools will see their budgets cut and lose teachers to pay for the new schools, and whether the Building Schools for the Future programme is now on hold to fund his new free schools policy. On fairness, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the Swedish Schools Minister that

“free schools are generally attended by children of better educated and wealthy families making things even more difficult for children attending ordinary schools in poor areas”?

How will he ensure that the losers from the budget cuts will not be the children of middle and lower-income families?

It is important that the right hon. Gentleman should answer this question. Has he put in place clear safeguards to stop existing private schools from simply reopening as free schools, with taxpayers taking over the payment of school fees? On standards, can he confirm that since the Swedish free schools policy was introduced, England has risen to the top of the TIMMS—Trends in Mathematics and Science Study—league table in maths and science, but Sweden has plummeted to the bottom?

Will the Secretary of State amend the Academies Bill to prevent parents from delegating the entire management of free schools to profit-making companies? Alternatively, can we look forward, as in Sweden, to the grotesque chaos of private companies scuttling around the country touting to parents, saying that they will set up a new school for them, and make a profit, at the expense of the taxpayer and other children’s education?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. May I seek to put his mind at rest? He asked whether the Academies Bill created the provision for the creation of free schools. I confirm now, as I confirmed during the Queen’s Speech debate, that it absolutely does. He specifically asked about free school meals and their funding. It is interesting that he should have asked that, because when he was at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, he did not secure the funding for the extension of free school meals; in fact, figures from the Treasury confirm that that was an underfunded promise, which raised the hopes of the poor without the cash being there to sustain it. It was a cynical pre-election manoeuvre, typical of the right hon. Gentleman.

I confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that under no circumstances will I take for the free schools programme money intended to extend free school meals to poor children. That money will go towards raising attainment among the poorest children. I rejected the idea that the right hon. Gentleman has attempted to advance. As I pointed out in my statement and on Friday, the money for the programme comes from low-priority IT projects. If he had simply read the press statement, rather than relying on unsubstantiated and unsourced reports, he would know that.

If the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about saving money and making economies, may I ask him this? Two weeks ago, I wrote to him asking whether he would help us to find economies in the education budget by releasing the Handover report, which he commissioned when he was in office to try to find economies in the schools budget. If he is serious about bearing down on costs and greater efficiency, will he now confirm that he will allow us to read that secret report on saving money? His silence is eloquent in itself.

The right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to refer to the words of the Swedish Schools Minister, Mr Bertil Östberg. Let me just say that the Swedish Schools Minister—[Interruption.] What a tongue twister that was. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, Swedish is a language, particularly given the diminution in the number of people studying modern languages under his Government, that fewer and fewer people can translate properly. He clearly cannot, because the Swedish Schools Minister said that the article from which Labour are quoting was

“very biased. It is taken out of context…I have not warned the British Government against introducing Free Schools. I clearly said to the newspaper that the Swedish Free Schools are here to stay and that is something positive”.

All the academic evidence from Sweden shows that more free schools mean higher standards. All schools improve when the number of free schools increases. A second study found that in a given municipality, the higher the proportion of free schools, the more standards rise all round. The evidence not only from Swedish free schools but from American charter schools shows that such schools help to close the gap between the poorest and the wealthiest children. It is that innovation in the cause of social mobility that lay behind the original academies programme introduced under Tony Blair, traduced by the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), and brought back under a reforming coalition Government.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but just as a point of clarification—because we must not mislead the public—Ministers do not ask questions but answer them. It would be wrong to give people the impression that the shadow Secretary of State has a right to come back to the Dispatch Box during this exchange. He has not—he has had his say—and we must not mislead people to the contrary.

Has the Secretary of State had a chance to meet people from the neighbourhood school campaign in my constituency, who have already made considerable progress towards the establishment of a new secondary school in Wandsworth—a campaign that I note that the shadow Secretary of State supported prior to the election?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I have had an opportunity to meet that idealistic group of parents, and others in Wandsworth. I want to pay tribute to Mr Ron Rooney, Mr Jon De Maria and the other members of the group, who have done so much. My hon. Friend is right: the right hon. Gentleman was warm towards that group when he was in government. Warmth towards the group has also been extended by the local authority—Wandsworth borough council—and its leader, Edward Lister. Like so many other local authorities, it has warmly welcomed this initiative to introduce pluralism, diversity and high quality in the state education system.

Does the Secretary of State agree that admissions policy is at the heart of any policy in terms of opening up schools to pupils in a fair way? Does he have any plans to change the admissions code or the power behind it that ensures that it works?

I intend to ensure that all free schools and all academies continue to abide by the existing admissions code, that all schools that are currently comprehensive remain comprehensive, and that schools are as inclusive as possible.

What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that free schools can be set up quickly and easily in places such as Reading, where they will prove very popular indeed?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I know how committed he is to improving education in Reading and elsewhere. We are ensuring that we reform the building regulations that hold schools back at the moment. Under the previous Government, we saw the absurdity of schools having to measure the distance between cycle racks before they could go ahead with construction; unless that was between 600 mm and 1 metre, the school could not be built. It is that sort of absurd, pettifogging, centralising bureaucracy that we need to sweep away so that money goes where it needs to go—towards the front line and towards children in Reading and elsewhere.

If the funding for academies and free schools is to come from the cancellation of low-priority IT schemes, does that mean that the Secretary of State is firmly committed to the Building Schools for the Future programmes and other financial support that was promised in my constituency to tackle the shortage of school places that exists, not only in primary and secondary schools?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I know that in Camden, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat-led council has been working incredibly hard to ensure that there are sufficient school places. I am grateful to her for her support for that programme, and to University College London for doing so much to help to support an academy. We are doing everything we can to ensure that we guarantee school places for children in Camden.

Will the Secretary of State apply a wider interest or public interest test when considering applications for free schools, and can he guarantee that he will give due consideration to local authorities’ views, whether they be favourable or unfavourable?

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for announcing the number of schools that have expressed an interest in the project. Will he publish the list of schools so that we can see what the national picture is, and will he explain why not, if there is a problem with doing that?

I am talking to all those schools now to ensure that we can all have as much information as possible about those that have expressed an interest, so that we can celebrate their moves towards greater independence.

Will my right hon. Friend tell us what discussions he has been having with teachers? I believe that it was teachers who were the driving force behind the charter school movement in America.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. One of the most heartening things has been the enthusiasm that teachers have shown for our extension of academy freedoms. Just last Friday I was talking to Jodie King, an inspirational assistant head teacher in Ealing who wants to set up a free school, and I have spoken to the Sutton Trust, which represents the interests of teachers who are keen to promote social mobility, and which wants to see free schools established.

I have talked to Mr Heath Monk, the head of Future Leaders, the programme that has done more than any other to encourage great young people to become head teachers, and found that it wants its alumni to support the extension of the free schools programme. I was also able to talk to Brett Wigdortz and a number of Teach First alumni, all of whom want to join in extending the free schools programme. That is all on top of the more than 2,000 head teachers to whom I spoke at the conference of the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services last week, who gave me a cordial response.

I hope that the schools will be set up in a variety of new buildings—[Interruption]—and in some old buildings as well. If we examine what has happened in Sweden, for example, we see that many new schools have opened in libraries, disused university buildings and observatories. They are model buildings, but I am sure we all agree that the most important thing about education is the quality of teaching and learning. That is why the enthusiasm of the teaching profession for the changes that we are making is so hot.

Could my right hon. Friend tell me what measures he will take to prevent the loss of land usable for education and schools, which we have seen over the past decade, so that free schools can be set up on the land of schools that have closed down?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are taking steps to ensure that D1 land, on which schools are built, remains there for school buildings and is not used for commercial reasons.

Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that he will not at any time during the course of this Parliament use financial or political pressure to push schools into applying for free school status?

I absolutely can. The legislation will be permissive, which is why it is so important that we rely on the enthusiasm and idealism of teachers to push it forward.

I used to be an education barrister, and my last case, in March 2010, was on behalf of the then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. It was probably his last ever success.

Does the Secretary of State see a place for rural schools in Northumberland receiving proper funding in future, as they have been underfunded for so very long?

The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood was lucky to have had such an effective brief to act on his behalf.

I appreciate that in Northumberland, as my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) have pointed out, there are real problems with the state of the fabric of school buildings. One problem that we had with the Building Schools for the Future programme in the past was that far too often money did not reach the front line with sufficient speed. Local authorities had to spend an average of £7 million each before a single brick was laid or builder contracted. That degree of waste and bureaucracy was scandalous, and we will end it.

Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that when a successful primary or secondary school wishes to pursue Government policies, the Government will support it even if the local authority decides not to do so for ideological or other reasons?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s support. We will do everything possible to support teachers, just as I know she would wish.

Given the Secretary of State’s very welcome assurance that before a free school or an academy is agreed to, the wider public interest test and the views of the local education authority will be considered, does he believe that in addition there may be a role for the schools adjudicators to evaluate areas of concern?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point. I know that he, as someone who used to lead for the Liberal Democrats on education, is particularly concerned about the impact of changes on his area of Bath and North East Somerset. We have had fruitful conversations about the position in that local authority, and I hope that we will continue to have such constructive conversations.

Can the Secretary of State tell us the position of the national curriculum in those so-called free schools? Do the proposals mean that religious extremists will receive state funding to carry out education not in accordance with the national curriculum?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to fighting extremism in all its forms, and I pay tribute to the role that he has played, both as a constituency MP and on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, in drawing attention to the dangers of extremism. He will be aware that as an Opposition Member, I was insistent that we do not give public money to extremist groups. That is why I have said that no school can be established unless the individuals who are setting it up do so with an ethos and curriculum that are in accordance with the democratic values of this country. More than that, we will operate according to the principles that were laid out in the Policy Exchange report, “Choosing our friends wisely”, which was endorsed by the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), as a means of ensuring that not only violent extremists, but extremist groups, do not receive public funds and are unable to exploit the generosity of the state.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that one of the first applications he received for new academy status was from the outstanding St John’s comprehensive school in Marlborough, which has just had an enormous, £25 million rebuild without a penny of Government money? Does he agree that the model it is proposing of a rural federation, whereby it has a suite of primary schools, is incredibly important in large rural constituencies?

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, as ever. It is critical that people realise that outstanding schools are going on the journey to acquiring greater academy freedoms in order to help other schools. That may mean underperforming primaries, or nearby faltering or coasting schools, and the example of St John’s, Marlborough, and everything it has done, is inspirational.

Will the Secretary of State tell us why he is going to give £500,000 to the New Schools Network, an organisation run by his former special adviser?

I am giving that money to the New Schools Network because it is the organisation that is best placed to carry forward our programme of ensuring that we provide support. May I say that I am proud of the fact that the New Schools Network has among its trustees Geoffrey Owen, the former editor of the Financial Timesand a former employer of the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood. If Geoffrey Owen’s judgment is deficient in any regard, I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will tell me all about it.

In the United States, one of the greatest champions of greater school freedoms is President Obama. Can the Secretary of State tell us about the successes of the charter schools movement in the US, particularly in New York?

My hon. Friend is passionately committed to improving the education of the very poorest, and therefore I am sure he will be interested to know that in New York, charter schools, including the Knowledge is Power Program charter schools, have closed the attainment gap between children from African-American and white backgrounds, and that the Harlem Children’s Zone, an inspirational project led by Roland Fryer, has ensured that the gap in attainment between the very poorest ghetto children and white children in New York has been closed successfully. For those who argue that charter schools, academies or free schools cream, skim and select only the most aspirational or talented, the work of Caroline Hoxby and other academics proves that such schools recruit the very poorest children and then ensure that they go to the very best universities. That is an inspirational model that I hope to see established here.

Will the Secretary of State give some reassurance to Babington college in my constituency, which I visited on Friday, and which has just become a national challenge trust school? As part of the bid to become such a school, it was promised money to provide extra one-on-one tuition, which is beginning to make a real difference in one of the most challenging and deprived parts of my constituency. Will he reassure that school that it will get that funding so that it can provide the necessary tuition?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on being elected as secretary of the Labour party’s Back-Bench education committee. May I extend an invitation to her and other members of the committee to come to the Department, so that we can talk not just about the issues in Babington, but more broadly? We want to ensure that national challenge trust schools and those schools that have been in difficulty continue to receive funding and, more importantly, that they continue to receive the support that they need from national leaders of education, in order to drive up standards.

As we move forward on the innovative free schools idea, can we have an assurance that their responsibilities towards excluded children will be exactly the same as those of any other school in the state system?

My hon. Friend is a former teacher, and a brilliant one at that. We will ensure that all academies continue to abide by the same rules on admissions, hard-to-place children and exclusions that apply to all state schools.

The Secretary of State knows that I have spent the past five years trying to persuade the councils responsible for Dudley school to transform standards by introducing academies and producing a decent bid for Building Schools for the Future. Before the election I was promised that the Department had funds available if the councils were able to produce a decent bid. Does that promise still stand?

I know how passionate the hon. Gentleman, who is the son of a head teacher, is about ensuring that that school moves towards achieving academy status, and he knows how keen I am on academy status. I suggest that he come into the Department, so that we can talk about exactly how we can advance that programme.

There is a desperate shortage in some of the schools in my constituency. In particular, the other day I met a Navy wife, like myself, who has five kids who go to four separate schools, which must be an absolute nightmare logistically. Will the Secretary of State give more details about the planning changes that will be made to ensure that schools can set up quickly and easily to meet parental demand?

I am hugely sympathetic to my hon. Friend. The number of children born in the past few years has risen dramatically, and as a result of that welcome baby boom, there is pressure on school places across the country—in Slough, in south and west London, and in Hampshire, too. We will ensure that we remove some of the obstacles that exist with regard to the use class order system so that buildings that can be transferred to school use are transferred more quickly. We will also change some of the onerous building regulations that currently inhibit the effective use of handsome buildings that could be brilliant schools.

The Secretary of State explained earlier that the free-market schools programme was going to be paid for by savings from lower priority IT programmes, and he seemed to indicate that he had an idea of how much they would cost. Can he therefore tell the House what the budget will be in this financial year for that venture?

Yes, we are devoting £50 million from the harnessing technology fund from lower-level IT projects, in order to recreate the fund that was set up by Tony Blair—the standards and diversity fund—which was abolished under the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). I know that the hon. Gentleman was a keen Blairite before he became the previous Prime Minister’s campaign manager. Let me say to him that his earlier allegiance to standards and diversity is now being upheld by this coalition Government.

Order. I am grateful to colleagues for their co-operation, but all good things come to an end. Time is pressing and we must move on.

The shadow Secretary of State will know that points of order come after statements, so he will have to raise his point of order later.