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Free Schools

Volume 528: debated on Monday 23 May 2011

The first free schools are due to open in September, less than 15 months since we first invited applications from groups interested in setting up new schools. That in itself is testament to the incredible energy and commitment of the first pioneering projects. Four groups have now entered into a funding agreement, a further 22 have had their business cases approved and six more are under consideration.

I wholeheartedly welcome that progress. Research by the Adam Smith Institute has found that 42% of profit-making independent schools operate on fees equal to or less than the average pupil funding in state schools. If entrepreneurs can drive up teaching standards and keep costs down, should we not look critically at some of the more dogmatic objections to their potential role in developing free schools?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s radicalism and idealism. I want to see how the first free schools do when they open in September. Given some of the inspirational figures who plan to lead them, I am convinced that we will see standards rise and that, as we see them rise, the innovations that those figures bring to the state sector will be spread more widely.

Is it true that there are 100 civil servants in the Department working on the free schools programme? If it is not 100, how many is it? What is the cost of that number of civil servants, and what on earth are they doing?

Yes—a very good prompt from behind me. There are just around 100 civil servants working on the programme and I am delighted that they are, because I am convinced that helping idealistic figures, such as Peter Hyman and Sajid Hussain, a state school teacher who is setting up a school for disadvantaged students in Bradford, is a good thing. We are bringing schools to the areas of deprivation let down by the hon. Gentleman and his party. Instead of civil servants having their time diverted to the sort of politically correct projects that preoccupied the Labour party, at last they are concentrating on driving up standards for the poorest, and I am proud that it is the coalition Government who are doing it.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming a number of potential free schools in my constituency, which he knows well, including one that plans to offer a bilingual education and one that plans to help very deprived young people in different areas?

I am delighted not only that there are free school applications from Brighton, Kemptown, but that Brighton college is playing a part in helping to establish a new free school in the east end of London which is setting out specifically to target talented children from poorer backgrounds. When that is combined with the innovation being shown by the Durand school in Brixton, for example, which plans to establish a state boarding school for disadvantaged children from that area, I have to say that the coalition Government are unleashing a wave of radicalism the like of which will not have been seen since 1944.

That confidence is clearly not shared in No. 10 Downing street, because last week it gave a distinctly lukewarm end-of-term report on the free schools policy. Let me quote a No. 10 source from The Independent:

“I guess you'd give Michael a six out of 10. The problem with Free Schools is that the scheme was designed to fill gaps in areas where there are poorly performing schools. But that’s not where the applications have come from.”

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how many of the 26 approved free schools in England come from the 10 most deprived local authority districts?

May I say, in terms of statements emanating from the centre, how delighted we were on this side of the House to read just last week that the Labour leadership has full confidence in the right hon. Gentleman? We are absolutely delighted that he is where he is, and we hope to see him there for many months to come.

All the free school applications that we have received are either in areas of deprivation and educational underachievement or in areas where pupil numbers are rising fast and there is a desperate need to see new school places. Whether it is Bradford or the east end, Slough or Tower Hamlets, in every single one of those areas poorer children are benefiting as a result of our radicalism.

My son has been doing standard assessment tests—SATs—recently, and I have been saying to him, “Read the question and answer the question.” I am tempted to say the same to the Secretary of State. The answer—the answer he would not give—is two, so it is clear that his policy is based on ideology, not on need.

I am more pragmatic than the Secretary of State. I have always said that each local proposal should be judged on its merit, and there is nothing to stop a free school being truly comprehensive if it is set up in the right way. What I object to is the unfair way in which he is siphoning off resources from other schools to pay for his free schools. Will he confirm today that the average maintained school is this year going to get an 80% cut in its maintenance budget to pay for free schools? If that is true, how on earth does he justify it?

I hope the advice that the right hon. Gentleman has given to his son on how he sits his SATs includes doing his revision and his homework, because I sat open-mouthed as the right hon. Gentleman unveiled his latest position on free schools. It is very different from the answer he gave on “The Andrew Marr Show” on 10 October when he was asked:

“So you are against free schools?”

and he said, “Yes I am”; very different from the answer he gave in The Guardian on 9 November when he said that under Labour

“there would be no more free schools”;

and very different from the answer he gave on 31 January when he said:

“Free schools mean a free-for–all”.

Over the past year, he has been consistently opposed to free schools, and now he says he is in favour—

Order. I ask the Secretary of State to resume his seat, and let me make it clear beyond peradventure, to the Secretary of State and to the House, that questions are about the policy of the Government and answers, suitably succinct, should be about the policy of the Government. That is how we will proceed from now on.