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Free Schools

Volume 573: debated on Monday 6 January 2014

2. How many applications his Department has received to establish free schools; and what proportion of such applications have been successful. (901739)

The Government received 1,103 applications to establish free schools in the first four rounds of applications and 27% of those applications were approved.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his response. Why has his Department been using all its legal might to prevent the release of free school applications and decision letters, even after the Information Commissioner ruled that there was a strong public information argument in favour of releasing them? Surely if public money is being used, in the public interest there has to be an absolute right for that information to be put in the public domain.

I note what the hon. Lady says, and we have extended the freedom of information legislation to cover academies, which was not the case before this Government came to power. It is, however, important that we protect those individuals who made proposals for schools that were not accepted, from the programme of intimidation that has been directed at many brave teachers by the National Union of Teachers and other extreme left-wing organisations. I make no apologies for protecting from intimidation those public-spirited people who wish to establish new schools.

One of the great things, however, about the free schools programme is that it implements Green party policy. In 2010, in the Green party education manifesto, the Green party leadership said that we should

“Move towards ending the need for private education by creating a programme of voluntary assimilation of private schools into the state sector.”

That is just what we have done.

I hope that the Secretary of State will shortly announce the approval of the Maiden Erlegh free school in my constituency, but is he as concerned as I am by Labour’s secret plan to review free school premises and buildings? Is that not simply a back-door way to destroy the free school movement? [Interruption.]

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns absolutely. We all know that, despite the occasionally brave forays into no-man’s land by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who has tried to defend parent-led academies, the majority of Labour Members—as we can hear from their catcalls and jeers—oppose free schools and greater parental choice and support the attempt of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) to undermine those schools. We will fight them every step of the way.

On behalf of the Opposition, I should like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for your words about our colleague, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), and his wife, Wyn. Our thoughts and prayers are with them for a speedy recovery.

In December, we learnt that the Prime Minister’s flagship Discovery free school will be closed. The failings of this episode have let down the people of Crawley, who will hold the Government to account. We know that the Discovery school was opened against the advice of the Montessori Schools Association, so will the Secretary of State tell the House how many free school applications Ministers have approved against the advice of Department officials?

The advice of officials in this case was quite clear, and we accepted it. That is why the Discovery free school was opened.

That says it all, does it not? We in the Opposition are in favour of innovation and autonomy in schools, but all we ask is that that is underpinned by basic safeguards and standards. National Audit Office reports reveal that low-scoring applications were waved through by Ministers against official advice, so let me give the Secretary of State another chance to set the record straight. Did Ministers approve applications for the Al-Madinah free school, the Discovery free school or the Kings Science academy free school against the advice of officials—yes or no?

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would know that I answered the question that he has just asked first time round. I pointed out that the advice from officials was to open the Discovery school. It was also the advice of officials to back Kings Science academy and to back Al-Madinah school. In all three examples, we took the advice of officials, but let me make it clear that it is entirely appropriate for Ministers to overrule officials at any given point. Officials advise and Ministers decide. But in these three cases, we took the advice of officials and appropriate safeguards were in place. One of the problems that Opposition Front Benchers have is that they support free schools in the abstract, but when it comes to the tough decisions necessary to improve education in this country, at the first whiff of grapeshot, they shy away and surrender.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the delight with which the rebuilding of Newark academy has been greeted in Newark, yet the establishment of the free school at the same time seems to be competing for small numbers of students who are needed inside the maintained schools. How does he answer that charge?

I will look closely at the particular case that the hon. Gentleman raises. I know that he has been an effective champion for good school provision in Newark, and I shall ensure that I look closely at the pupil numbers to which he alludes.