Skip to main content

Free Schools

Volume 584: debated on Monday 21 July 2014

5. What recent assessment she has made of the performance of free schools; and if she will make a statement. (904952)

14. What recent assessment she has made of the performance of free schools; and if she will make a statement. (904961)

Based on Ofsted inspections of free schools undertaken so far, the majority of free schools are performing well. They are also more likely to be rated outstanding than other state-funded schools.

My constituency is one of the fastest- growing boroughs in London. We currently have one free school, which is performing well, according to parents. School places are my biggest local issue. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss this and see whether we can prioritise the creation of more new free schools in Brentford and Isleworth?

My hon. Friend is, I know, closely involved with all the schools in Brentford and Isleworth and is active in helping to identify sites for new free schools. I would welcome the opportunity to visit that one free school she refers to—I think it is the Nishkam school in Isleworth—and to join her in meeting her constituents who want to establish new free schools in response to parental demand. That is what the free schools programme is all about—new schools set up in response to local parental demand, delivering strong discipline and high academic standards.

The Minister will be aware that free schools are very popular with parents and achieve results that outperform many maintained schools. In view of that, would he consider supporting a new free school in Deal in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is right. There are currently 174 free schools up and running, of which 40% have already had a section 5 Ofsted inspection, in addition to their pre-opening inspection. Of those, 24% are graded outstanding, which is a staggering achievement for a school that has been open for just four or five terms. This represents a higher proportion than other schools. Some 71% of free schools are graded good or outstanding. We would certainly welcome an application for a new free school in Deal if there is evidence of a need for more good school places.

May I, too, welcome the Minister back to the Dispatch Box? I would be interested to have his assessment over a coffee some time of his old boss versus his new boss.

As the Minister will be aware, Ofsted said that at one school, children’s reading ability had regressed, and of another school that

“too many pupils are in danger of leaving the school without being able to read and write properly.”

This was Ofsted’s report on two free schools. What early warning systems exist to spot problems in free schools before they become entrenched, and how many free schools are currently under investigation by the Education Funding Agency?

That is enough material for at least one Adjournment debate, and possibly two. I have a feeling the hon. Gentleman will be putting in his applications before very long.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) said to me on Wednesday, “It just shows that you can boil cabbage twice.” [Interruption.] I think it was meant kindly.

The Government are committed to eliminating illiteracy. We have introduced the phonic check and we are determined to raise reading standards right across the school system, but free schools and academies are taking action more swiftly than local authority schools to tackle failure in those schools.

The Government’s policy on free schools is in free fall. Given that local authorities have no formal powers under the Government’s education policy, what will the Government do to ensure strong local oversight at local authority level to ensure that the debacle that has been played out in Birmingham is not repeated elsewhere?

The evidence is that in those small number of examples where free schools have not succeeded, action is taken more swiftly than in local authority schools. There is evidence that many local authority schools languish in special measures year after year. That is not what is happening with the academies and free schools programme.

21. I commend my hon. Friend on his return to the Front Bench. Free schools and academies are rightly popular with parents and many of them, such as Cams Hill in my constituency, turn children away. Will he consider giving academies and free schools the power to borrow to expand so that more parents have a choice of places for their children? (904968)

That is more an issue for the Treasury than for this policy. We are seeing more and more free schools coming on line, and they are popular. We already have 157 free schools in the pipeline, about 80 will be opening this September, and I am convinced that they will all be very successful.

I also congratulate the Minister. If he has been boiled twice, I wonder what happened to the other vegetables.

I am a firm supporter of free schools. As the Minister knows, the first Sikh free school will open in September this year. I congratulate the Secretary of State, whose constituency of Loughborough is a fast 10 minutes away from Leicester, on her appointment. Will the Minister ask her to come along in September and open our new free school for the Sikh community?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s warm words—I think they were warm. I would welcome the opportunity to visit that school, but I will pass on the invitation to my right hon. Friend if I am not good enough to visit it myself.