Skip to main content

Free Schools

Volume 662: debated on Wednesday 19 June 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of free schools.

It gives me great pleasure to open this debate. I want to start by quoting Kavit, a year 11 pupil at Michaela Community School in Wembley—a free school that I co-founded in 2011, opened in 2014 and chaired until 2017:

“I have been at Michaela, our unique and inspiring free school for five years. I was in the first cohort of pupils and remember when there were just 120 of us here. Now we have 600 pupils and in 2 years, we will have over 800.

I have been given so many opportunities to become a better person. Michaela is like nowhere else. Firstly, there is no bullying in the school. Our high standards of behaviour have led to a friendly environment where younger pupils can go to older pupils for help. We all feel safe and cared for by our teachers at school.

Our teachers are extremely hard working. They stay for hours after school helping pupils who may be unsure on a topic and create new booklets to use in lessons.

I transformed from primary to secondary school. My parents saw me reading bigger books, revising more, helping more at home and I was a much nicer person overall. Michaela inspired me to reach for the top. My aim is to graduate from Cambridge University with a Maths degree.

The advice my teachers have given me has shaped me into the person I am: someone who perseveres and who is stoical.

I am really excited about starting at Michaela’s sixth form next year and I am crossing my fingers that I get into Cambridge. It would be a dream come true.”

That illustrates the power of a great education and how dedicated teaching changes lives and empowers a new generation, regardless of their background.

What is special about Kavit and Michaela is that the inventive teaching methods pioneered at the school in terms of curriculum, behaviour and leadership, thanks to the autonomy inherent in these state-funded comprehensive schools, would simply not have been possible without the free schools policy introduced in 2010. Set up by teachers—in this case led by our formidable headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh—with parents and other community leaders, free schools are from the community and for the community. I was inspired to get involved because I grew up in Wembley in the 1980s, and my parents found it difficult to find a good local state school for me. Had Michaela been around then, there is no doubt that my parents would have been first in line to sign me up.

Let me tell hon. Members about my home town of Wembley, in the London Borough of Brent. The general demographic of our secondary school intakes consists of approximately 50% on pupil premium, 10% eligible for special educational needs support and over 50% with English as a second language. Some of our intakes have consisted of a third of pupils who read below their chronological age and two thirds with maths below the national expectation. Many of our children have been under child protection, in care or excluded from previous schools.

Thanks to the robust knowledge-based curriculum pioneered by the teachers at Michaela, our pupils have been known to make two years of progress in reading in the space of one year or double the normal progress in maths. Some have even made up to five years of reading progress in a single academic year, and others have even come off their special education needs support. That is one reason why Michaela was rated outstanding by Ofsted in 2017. Michaela is one example of how free schools are changing the landscape of education in England for the better. The children of Wembley are lucky to have Michaela in their community, and I am pleased that we now have permission, announced last week, to open a second school in Stevenage.

I could wax lyrical for hours about Michaela, and I know the Minister is a fan and a doughty supporter of our school, but I want to talk more about how free schools overall are faring and about how I would like our next Prime Minister to commit to expanding their reach so that it is not just the lucky few in disparate parts of the country who have access to them. I want a country where every town has a free school, every parent has real school choice and every child has the chance to thrive. While the free schools policy has been an undeniable success since its inception in 2010, nines year later it is necessary to breathe new momentum into the programme, which is in danger of stalling. We need to take free schools from success to scale.

In 2010, the English education system was hampered by poor results and languishing in the international league tables. Twenty per cent. of our 16-year-olds were unable to functionally read or do basic maths. Under the Conservatives, thankfully, those stories are no longer the norm. Led by David Cameron, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and the Minister, free schools were a fundamental part of our charge to drive up standards, unlock innovation and improve discipline and leadership.

In the years following their introduction, free schools have been an unqualified success. The latest figures reveal that a free school is 50% more likely to be rated outstanding when compared with other types of state school. They are the most popular type of school among parents, attracting more first preferences than any other. Although free schools represent no more than 2% of all schools in England, four of the top 10 schools in the country are free schools, when measured by Progress 8 scores. Disadvantaged children do better at free schools than at other types of state school. Free schools are more likely to be located in deprived areas and can be vehicles to address behavioural problems that cause youth violence, thanks to the freedoms allowed to teaching staff. There is also emerging evidence of the competitive benefit that free schools generate, raising the quality of neighbouring schools through healthy challenge.

Despite those successes, the pace at which new free schools are entering the education system has slowed to a crawl. In a paper that I have authored, which is due to be published soon, I found that two thirds of parents do not live within reasonable commuting distance of a free school, because of a lack of geographic distribution. I also found that, at the current rate, it would be another 12 years before free schools made up just 10% of all English schools—two decades after the programme began. The first four years of the programme saw significantly higher numbers opening than in the most recent four years.

The 2017 Conservative manifesto aimed to increase the expansion of free schools through the building of at least 100 new free schools a year, but that has not been achieved. There used to be multiple application waves per year; now, there are longer gaps between the waves, and the number of approvals is falling. I was delighted to see the announcement of 22 new free schools last week, but that number is a reduction compared with waves 11 and 12. We risk losing the opportunities presented by free schools if that trend continues.

Today, I am making the case for scaling up free schools. There are several practical ways in which the slowdown could and should be reversed. First, we need to revisit the original purpose of free schools and broaden the approval criteria by which they are chosen. Free schools should be able to open wherever there is parental demand. Basing the criteria exclusively around a shortfall in school places severely restricts the opportunities for underperforming areas to have access to a free school. If we really value school choice, we need to genuinely provide it.

Secondly, a future Government should place innovation squarely at the centre of their school roll-out strategy, ensuring the approval of free schools that demonstrate an innovative and potentially useful approach, thereby reducing the cost of education and bringing about a net benefit to the overall education system.

Thirdly, to overcome some of the teething problems faced by newly established free schools and to disperse their location, we could develop a more proactive outreach programme, identifying teams of teachers, community leaders, business people and parents in areas that do not have a free school, and build their capacity to successfully apply for and open one. It is a bewildering process and requires much support. The New Schools Network has been excellent in that regard, providing support to promoter groups, but it should be tasked more explicitly and supported more widely with the talent-spotting resources needed to get a free school application team ready.

Fourthly, I need to mention the disappointing performance of studio schools and university technical colleges, two strands of the free school programme that offer more technical or vocational qualifications, which have suffered a disproportionate number of closures. We need to overhaul the fortunes of those institutions. Far from abandoning them, we need to make changes to ensure that the public do not lose faith in this essential kind of education. By changing the recruitment age to 16 so it is in line with the rest of the system, and allowing selection to be used in those schools, we can ensure that they operate on a level playing field.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, we need compelling ideas about how to deliver more free schools affordably. The Conservatives have done remarkable work to deliver new free schools at a cost a third lower than under the Labour Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme, but the issue of capital investment needs to be addressed, hopefully at the next spending review. If we are serious about ensuring that the free school programme remains dynamic, self-improving and growth-oriented, funding solutions have to be offered.

To that end, I am confident that we can drive down cost through neighbourhood plans, specifically by funding neighbourhood plans that propose free schools, allowing for cheaper land. Being more ambitious, we could oversee the creation of a new kind of social impact bond to allow ordinary citizens to support the capital cost of a new school while offering them a small return.

Finally, we could incentivise free schools to use their funding more smartly. For example, they might receive more funding if they provided teacher training or developed more efficient teaching methods. We could also explore how to allow free schools more choice over how they use their allocated funding. We could, for example, allow a school to choose to take lower ongoing per capita funding—90% or 95% of the funding it would otherwise receive during its first two decades—and plough the savings back into its ongoing capital costs.

Those ideas will be fleshed out in my paper, which I am sure you are eagerly awaiting, Ms Buck. The next Prime Minister and Education Secretary have a golden opportunity to—[Interruption.] I have no doubt that Ms Buck will be waiting with bated breath for my report. I will send her a personalised copy. The next Prime Minister and Education Secretary have a golden opportunity to galvanise free schools and, in so doing, to galvanise the education of our young people. We are at a turning point, and I hope they seize the initiative to create the legacy of a school system that provides all our children with life-changing opportunities. For children like Kavit in Wembley with dreams and aspirations, we need to take free schools from success to scale.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman) on securing this important debate, and I look forward to reading her report.

It is fair to say that I wholeheartedly disagree with just about everything the hon. Lady said. Her comments about the concept of people getting a financial return from investing in local education establishments make me fearful. Education should not be considered as a business. The money-making, business and enterprise element of even the academies programme has served only to put additional pressure on schools and families. Parents have to finance so many of their children’s additional activities in the education environment. That simply did not happen to the same degree prior to the academisation programme.

I am delighted that Kavit, whom the hon. Lady mentioned, has had such an enriching educational experience, but I deeply believe that Kavit’s experience should be everyone’s experience, and that the responsibility for education lies not with a few well-meaning local residents or capable parents but with the state. It is our responsibility. We in this place should take responsibility for ensuring the very highest standards in our state education system. For that and many other reasons, which I will come to, I cannot understand the enthusiasm for the free schools programme. Some £15,000 more per primary school pupil and nearly £20,000 more per secondary school pupil goes into free schools compared with those in the state system. That is a ridiculous amount of money.

The hon. Lady talked about “undeniable success”. Sir Peter Lampl, who founded the Sutton Trust, said:

“Free schools were supposed to bring new and innovative providers into the education sector, to drive up standards and improve school choice. But as our research shows, very few are fulfilling that original purpose.”

Carole Willis, chief executive of the National Foundation for Educational Research, said that the Sutton Trust report

“shows that the government’s free schools programme has not been very successful at bringing innovation to the education system and encouraging more parents and teachers to set up new schools. What it does highlight is that those new free schools that are opening are increasingly set up and led by multi-academy trusts and are used as a way to meet rising pupil numbers. So, if the government is still committed to the programme’s original purpose then it should review and clarify the mission of free schools.”

Can it really be an undeniable success that a trust set up by a Conservative peer and former so-called policy supremo of David Cameron’s was given £340,000 for two free school projects that never even got off the ground? Is that really the definition of success for the education of our children? I do not think it is. The Floreat Education Academies Trust, which was founded by the now Health Minister, Lord O’Shaughnessy—I do not know whether that is still accurate—received cash to set up new primary schools in London, but the plans were abandoned in March 2018. Those primaries were among 44 free school projects that were cancelled without teaching a single pupil between 2013 and 2017. What an utter disgrace of a waste of taxpayers’ money. That money should be going to our kids in the education system now, not on the fanciful ideas of people sitting in the other House who cannot even deliver.

There simply is not enough scrutiny in the application process for free schools. I had the same concern about the level of accountability and transparency in academies, but free schools, particularly under the umbrella of multi-academy trusts, are increasingly becoming completely unaccountable and untransparent fiefdoms at the heart of our communities. There is nothing that local people can do to challenge them when they are failing. And what happens when they do fail, having had all that money put into them? The state picks up the pieces.

I will not, because the hon. Lady had a good 20 minutes to set out her case. I am sure she will cover these things extensively in her report or in summing up at the end of the debate.

Cancelled schemes were given £8.7 million of funding by the Department for Education. That money has now been written off. It could have been used to help struggling state schools, or even to reward schools in the state system that are succeeding and excelling and that deserve to expand, rather than being funnelled into these local community projects run by well-meaning individuals. The idea that improved financial self-management will in any way resolve those problems is for the birds.

In Great Grimsby, we have been fully academised at secondary school level for about five years. Even in that academised system, there are concerns about the level of exclusions, temporary and permanent. Some schools—if they are in the wrong area—feel they are a dumping ground for other schools that cannot cope with the diverse needs of their student body. We have also seen an increase in provision through pupil referral units.

I went recently to Phoenix House pupil referral unit in my constituency. I saw young people who would have struggled in mainstream education—whether a free school, an academy trust or the comprehensive system—but who are now in an environment that works well for them. Where they might previously not have gone on to sit their GCSEs, they are now sitting them and engaging with their school community. They are forming friendships and respecting their local community. That school is going round begging for and borrowing facilities. It has a fantastic workshop where the kids can work on a car chassis, build it up from scratch and take it apart again. The school has to go to local scrapyards and car dealers to beg for things for that facility, yet we are wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds on free schools that often do not deliver for their pupils.

There are all kinds of statistics on the representation of young people in free schools who are eligible for free school meals, compared with those in academies, and that goes to the heart of the matter. If the Government really want to improve education, they should not turn the system even more into a marketplace. Education is not a marketplace; education is about the future of our young people and our country. We should give headteachers who are already in the system the flexibility offered to those in free schools to deliver well for their students, pupils and wider community, and we should properly fund them, rather than diverting cash to vanity projects that do not work for the local community. I therefore do not support the idea that we should introduce free schools all around the country.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I wish to speak about Europa School UK in Culham in my constituency, but this is not an attempt to get one over on the Minister—quite the opposite. The Minister has been incredibly helpful with that school, and his recent letter to it was a model of assistance that I am told helped to make a significant impact on the heads of other national delegations—it does have the word “Europe” in the title, so I thank him for that.

I disagree with what the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) has just said—I suspect this will go backwards and forwards across the Chamber. Europa School UK was founded as a free school because local people wanted it, not because the Government or any other institution wanted it. It could not be provided for by the local authority because of the way that it teaches the children who attend—I will say something about that in a moment. It also could not be provided for because it teaches the European baccalaureate, rather than any other baccalaureate or GCSEs and A-levels. It now has permission to continue teaching the European baccalaureate until 2021, subject to the European Commission, which effectively owns the copyright. That gives an enormous advantage to children who started when they were five with the expectation of taking the European baccalaureate, and who will now work through the school until 2021.

The school is also a good example of how petitions can work. I presented a petition that had been signed by parents and friends of the school to Parliament, and it had a big effect. Perhaps a message can go out from this debate that parliamentary petitions—as opposed to the e-petitions that we debate in Westminster Hall on Mondays—are not a waste of time, because that petition put the issues raised firmly on the table at the Department for Education, and helped to crystallise them.

Under the terms of the free school, parents have agreed to the provision of a certain type of education, which I am about to describe. The importance of this school began in 2011, when I started getting people together to get permission for the free school to go ahead. At its core was a proposal to do something that has never been offered before in the UK or, incidentally, in the European Union school system. The proposal was to offer a complete, thoroughgoing commitment to full bilingual education from reception until finishing school. Pupils would not simply learn another language; they would learn through that language, which is an important distinction. They would learn the linguistic rhythm of a language and have truly deep language learning, not just acquire a second language overlaid on the first.

Europa School UK was set up as a free school because that is what parents wanted. I remember holding discussions with them at the time, and parents wanted that type of education. It is not only those parents of European origin who work at the Culham Science Centre or at Harwell who enjoy this school; it has become so attractive that it appeals to British-born parents who live in the area and are looking to provide the education that their children need. During Education questions I asked the Minister whether he accepted that Europa School UK was proving popular with all kinds of parents, and he kindly replied that he shared my admiration for the school.

How does it work? A pupil will go in and have a history lesson in German, or geography in French, and they will be taught through those languages throughout the day. It is not a question of picking up the language as one goes along; this is about fully immersing oneself in that language, and it works—I have seen it work, and I will soon go to the school to participate in the presentation of certificates and prizes.

The freedom offered by the free schools programme to allow schools to set their own curriculum has been essential. The founders of Europa School UK adopted the curriculum of the previous European school, which the Commission did not want to fund any more, and modified that with the mandatory elements of the English national curriculum. I mention that because it shows that free schools are what parents want, and they provide something different from what the local authority wants. The success of Europa School UK can be seen in the recent Ofsted report, which produced a very good result.

My hon. Friend’s references to Europa School UK remind me of Northampton International Academy, which as a fairly new free school attempts to achieve that ethos. He referred to the ability to drive excellence through parental choice, and Northampton School for Boys has just been granted permission to go for free school status, which comes off the back of being a school that local parents recognise as a provider of excellence. Does my hon. Friend agree that this programme provides an opportunity for that parental view to be broadened and spread across local communities?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who has hit on the key word that describes the whole programme—choice. It is about parental choice. What I have described has worked well for my school and I hope it works well for his.

There is not much more I can add. The Europa School UK is a model school that everyone is welcome to visit to see how the teaching is done. Of course, they will have to speak Italian, German and Spanish to understand the courses being delivered, but I am sure that will not cause any problems for hon. Members in this multilingual Chamber.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman) on securing the debate and on her excellent job application. When the future Prime Minister is appointed, I am sure she will be given serious consideration after such a loyal speech.

I will devote my contribution to the urgent need for a new secondary school in Radcliffe in my constituency. Radcliffe is an old industrial town that was on the frontline of the industrial revolution. When the paper mills shut down in the 1990s, not only did people lose their jobs, but the town lost its sense of identity. That was made worse by the loss of its secondary school and a sense that it was failing to get a fair deal from the council in Bury or the Government in Westminster. If we are to truly give Radcliffe families hope for a bright future, it is essential that they get the school they deserve and were promised.

First, I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) said about the Government’s ideological preference for free schools, which is predicated on a myth that keeps being repeated—that schools are subject to interference from local councils. That has not been the case for decades; in the real world, headteachers and governors run schools.

For a long time, the support provided by an excellent local education authority in Bury added value to school leadership and made a key contribution to raising standards. In recent years, the withering on the vine of the active LEA, especially the loss of expert advisers due to cuts, has contributed to previously excellent schools ending up in special measures or requiring improvement. I do not claim that all local education authorities were adding value to schools, but those that were should have been invested in, not effectively dismantled.

The fragmentation of the school system has led to a dearth of accountability, as my hon. Friend said, and has made no discernible difference to raising standards. Those who claim that new Labour is somehow to blame because it introduced academies are guilty of rewriting history. We created academies in communities where, despite extra funding and changes in leadership, long-term underperformance had blighted young people’s life chances. Our passion was to break the shameful and enduring link between social class and educational attainment that continues to blight the country’s success. I believe that breaking that link is the Government’s objective too, but forcing academisation on all schools and insisting that all new schools are free schools will not necessarily achieve that.

Despite those misgivings, I make no apologies for working with the council and the Government to develop a proposal for a free school for Radcliffe. Government policy means that we have a stark choice: a free school or no school. In those circumstances, I will work night and day to secure a secondary school through the free school programme.

I often state that the worst thing that has happened in my political career is the betrayal of the promise that Radcliffe would have a new state-of-the-art secondary school. It is a shocking story, and many lies have been told about how it came to pass, so I want to put the record straight. In 2009, Bury Council had three sites at its disposal: the former Radcliffe High School site, the former Coney Green High School site and the former East Lancashire paper mill site. A developer had agreed to purchase all three sites and I had secured £5 million from what was then the Department for Education and Skills to enable the proposed school to go ahead on the East Lancs paper mill site. Work on the school was ready to go.

The Labour leadership of the council was concerned that the Conservatives would take control at that year’s local elections and abandon plans for the new school, but senior officers assured them that a legal heads of agreement had been signed with the developer, which meant that nothing could prevent the school project going ahead. That turned out to be untrue and on taking office, the Tories suspended the school project. Without any consultation with affected parents, they proposed that Derby High School be relocated to Radcliffe; that proposal was ultimately rejected by parents.

The Conservatives then reduced the size of the proposed school and refused to proceed with the original funding package. In addition, they relocated Millwood School to one of the sites. They claimed that the school could go ahead only if the then Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme provided the funding, but they were fully aware that Bury would not become eligible for that funding for many years. The developer lost patience and walked away, publicly expressing his anger at the council’s conduct.

Meanwhile, the continued uncertainty and broken promises seriously affected student numbers at the existing Radcliffe Riverside School. Understandably, parents were voting with their feet and sending their children to schools outside Radcliffe. Having blighted the school, the then controlling group had the audacity to claim that there was no demand for a school in Radcliffe. In 2010, the incoming Tory-Lib Dem Government scrapped the Building Schools for the Future programme. In 2014, Radcliffe Riverside School closed due to dwindling numbers. The promise of a new secondary school had turned to dust, and worse still, Radcliffe now had no secondary school at all.

That history matters because some people promote the narrative that the council has neglected Radcliffe and does not care about its future. Some of the most vocal promoters of that view were members of the controlling group that blighted and then scrapped the school. They ought to hang their heads in shame for their hypocrisy and failure to stand up for Radcliffe when they had the political power.

I and the council leader, Councillor Rishi Shori, have made it clear that a new secondary school must be a top priority for the town and the entire borough of Bury. To that end, we had a highly constructive meeting with Education Minister Lord Agnew in April. I place on record my thanks, which I ask the Minister to pass on, for his guidance and understanding about why Radcliffe should be a priority. He made no guarantees about what would happen in the future, but he understood the importance of a new school as a driver of change in a disadvantaged community.

We are in the process of selecting a suitable partner, as required by the free schools programme, and will submit a funding bid to the Government in the autumn. We are confident that we meet all the relevant requirements specified by the Government and, crucially—the predominant issue in terms of being successful—that we can demonstrate future demand for student places.

My vision remains the same: a new secondary school at the heart of a revitalised Radcliffe community that offers the highest educational standards and is a key hub for intergenerational community activities. Radcliffe is the destination of choice for many people seeking affordable housing with good transport links in the vicinity of Manchester and Bury. The new food-based events at Radcliffe market and the council’s investment plans for the town centre are positive steps forward. I would also like there to be a new focus on heritage and cultural regeneration in the town as a key driver for its future. As we host the cricket world cup, few are aware that the great West Indian cricketer Sir Garfield Sobers spent the early years of his career playing for Radcliffe cricket club, or that Radcliffe was the birthplace and family home of Danny Boyle.

The new school promised in 2009 is long overdue. I hope the Minister will assure me that the Government will continue to work with me and Bury Council to make the Radcliffe school happen and create a renewed sense of hope and optimism in the town. Radcliffe is an almost classic example of towns that are close to cities that have benefited from our country’s growth in the last 30 years that feel left behind, and that they have not benefited from the economic growth. Delivering the school is absolutely essential to turning around the perception of many that the community has been forgotten and left behind. The school is not only important in raising educational standards; it is the key to the community’s future sense of identity and regeneration.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman) on the comprehensive way in which she introduced the debate. Although I do not necessarily agree with my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), she presented the arguments against free schools skilfully. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) made a good point about the Europa School. Free schools present an opportunity to vary the educational system and encourage different sorts of school. I sent all my children to the French Lycée, which is a state school, and I have never regretted that.

I want to talk about one community that wants to open free schools. The Minister will not be surprised by what I am about to go on about. In 2017, the Conservative party made a solemn manifesto commitment to lift the faith cap on free schools. Manifesto commitments are supposed to be very important. For instance, nobody has ever dared to break our commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid, and the same applies to pensioner benefits. However, there was one manifesto commitment that we broke: the commitment to end the 50% faith cap.

The Minister knows—I hope he will respond to this—that the cap uniquely disadvantages the Catholic community. There are 2,142 Catholic schools in England, covering every level of education. They make up 10% of the national total of state-funded schools. Everybody accepts that they are the most diverse schools, that they are the most willing to provide for all educational standards, and that they never impose academic selection. Despite all that, the 50% faith cap has, up to now, prevented the opening of a single new free school. Indeed, there cannot be any Catholic free schools because the 50% cap policy would come into effect only if the school was popular with pupils from other faiths and none. That means that the policy would only target popular Catholic schools that already had diverse school communities, while having no impact on schools that were either not over-subscribed or only attracted pupils from one, monocultural, community.

The 50% cap is espoused as encouraging diversity and inclusion. Catholic schools are already some of the most diverse schools in the country. That is in part due to the traditionally migrant nature of the Catholic community, which drives diversity and new demand for school places. Large catchment areas allow for increased social mixing. Catholic schools tend to be far more ethnically mixed than most other types of school. About one third have a proportion of ethnic minority pupils somewhere between 5% and 40%—higher than in any other type of school. Furthermore, all existing Catholic schools select pupils based on faith only when the school is over-subscribed, and currently, one third of all pupils in Catholic schools are not Catholics.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making an excellent case and highlighting that this policy unnecessarily disadvantages Catholics. It is completely unnecessary for the Government not to have stuck to their manifesto pledge. I hope that the Minister will give some explanation for that in his speech.

I hope he will, because this is an important point. Catholic schools have traditionally opened as voluntary-aided schools. VA schools are state schools where 10% of the capital costs are found by the faith group. In addition, Catholic schools’ buildings and land are owned by the Catholic Church. The Church provides those premises at no charge to the state, and that arrangement saves the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds a year. Until recently, the onus for local authorities to prioritise new academies and free schools—this is where I agree with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby—meant that it was much harder to open new voluntary aided schools.

Now, that manifesto commitment was broken. Why was it broken? Of course, it has nothing to do with Catholic schools. The Government know perfectly well that we have the most diverse schools in the country. The Government are not at all worried about Catholic schools. In last night’s televised leadership debate, there was a question about Islamophobia—something that we all oppose—but frankly, the Government are phobic towards the opening of new Muslim faith schools. That is what it is all about. It is never announced, never admitted. The Government are worried about 100% Muslim faith schools. Personally, I believe that if Muslims want to have faith schools, they should be allowed to have faith schools, and if that is the reason why the Government are preventing the creation of new Catholic schools—which are the most diverse schools—they should openly admit it. Of course, they cannot admit it because it would be embarrassing.

Here we have a Government, breaking a solemn manifesto commitment and preventing the opening of new Catholic schools—the most diverse schools in the country. The ban is not only wrong but completely ineffective, because very few non-Muslims apply to Muslim schools, so most of those schools are in fact 100% Muslim—I am not complaining about that—so the faith cap does not even come into effect. The faith cap only prevents the opening of Catholic free schools. It is unsustainable, wrong and should be dropped.

The Government claim that they are working hard to open new Catholic voluntary-aided schools. No doubt the Minister will mention with great pride the forthcoming opening of Hampton Waters Roman Catholic Voluntary Aided School, which is to open in the diocese of East Anglia, which was announced on 14 June. That will be the first Catholic school to open in six years. Two years after the breaking of the manifesto commitment, not a single new Catholic school has opened. There are 50,000 Catholic children waiting for places, and no places for them. What are the Government doing about it? What they are doing is sending me letters, in the shape of one that I received from the Secretary of State, who tells me:

“On this occasion, I have been unable to approve any further bids. This is mainly due to the current lack of demographic need for additional school places in the areas chosen by the bidders.”

I presume that the letter was written by some civil servant. It appears to be profound gobbledegook.

This is a serious matter, and I hope the Minister will address it. No new Catholic schools have been opened for six years, and 50,000 Catholic children are unable to find a place. Only one school has been approved, and that was on 14 June—last week. I very much hope we might get some progress from this Minister, and if not from him, then from whoever becomes the new Secretary of State in a month’s time.

I am recovering from that speech.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman) on securing the debate. I cannot say that I agreed with much of her speech, but she has a passionate commitment to education, even though we may view it differently. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. It is the birthday of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn)—can we all wish her a happy birthday? She summed up how all our schools, not just free schools, are underfunded and are having to beg scrapyards for resources; that will live long in the memory.

In this Chamber yesterday we debated whether migration should be in the history curriculum. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) was sitting in exactly the same place when I left yesterday, so he must have been working there overnight. He speaks regularly in Westminster Hall about his passion for the Europa School. It is just nice to see a Conservative being nice to fellow Europeans, in particular, once in a while, and I say well done to him, flippantly.

The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) speaks passionately about his constituency and the need for a school in Radcliffe. As my wife was born in Radcliffe, I am sure it will be the subject of pillow talk later.

The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has shown passionate commitment to the treatment of Catholic schools. I declare an interest as the convenor of the Catholic Legislators Network in Parliament. A manifesto commitment was broken, and the Church is finding it extraordinarily difficult in bidding rounds to build the schools that it needs under the voluntary-aided system—a system that we happen to support. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will make progress with his campaign, because it is important.

We have learned today that the reality is that the current school system is broken. It has been fragmented. The current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs threw it in the air in 2010 and let it break, and we are still trying to pick up the pieces. It has become unaccountable and is not being led by the needs of our communities. We need to fix what is broken. However, when 124 failing schools have been left stranded outside the system, and are waiting to be transferred to another chain or sponsor, something is wrong with the way we are running our school system. For far too long, parents and communities have been shut out of decisions affecting schools in their areas. The coalition Government document said that the free schools programme would

“give parents, teachers, charities and local communities the chance to set up new schools, as part of our plans to allow new providers to enter the state school system in response to parental demand”.

The reality has been very different. As my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby pointed out, research by the Sutton Trust and the National Foundation for Educational Research found that by 2018 only one in five free schools had parents involved in their inception, so the programme is not parent-led. The proportion of parent-led schools has decreased over time. What is the Minister doing to ensure that parents and communities are not being shut out of decisions about schools in their area?

Labour’s plan for a national education service will give power back to communities so that all our schools are run by the people who know them best—parents, teachers and communities. We would give local authorities the power to take on schools where no other sponsor could be found. That would ensure that no school would be left without the support of a sponsor to deliver school improvement services and provide it with a network of schools.

Despite huge expenditure on free schools, there is no evidence that they improve standards. Problems in 10 free schools, including low standards, concerns about financial oversight and governance and a failure to recruit sufficient pupils, have led to closure, planned closure or partial closure. I have previously cited the case of a school in Southwark. The council begged the Government not to go ahead but the Government funded the school, which attracted 60 pupils and closed after two years. There was no spatial planning from the authority about where it should go. It cost £2 million. We could have sent each of the 63 pupils to Eton for half the price. I do not, by the way, advocate sending pupils to Eton.

The system is failing, as that case shows, but that should come as no surprise when, like academies, free schools can employ unqualified teachers, which they do at a much higher rate than other schools. While just 2.9% of teachers in all nursery and primary schools do not have qualified teacher status, the figure for primary free schools is more than three times higher at 10.2%. Similarly, while 5.4% of teachers in all state-funded secondary schools do not hold QTS, the figure in secondary free schools is 8.9%. That is a further undermining of the teaching profession by the Government.

Currently, 91% of schools face real-terms cuts. There is no need to ask me about that; just ask the Conservative party leadership candidates, who have all made promises to fund schools fairly. We cannot allow a system to go unchallenged when it permits the education of children to become a vehicle for private profits and allows the awarding of huge executive salaries, and when there have been mounting scandals, including evidence of financial mismanagement. The Minister should seek to ban related-party transactions—business arrangements between a free school, academy or multi-academy trust and other organisations with which there are personal connections.

The National Audit Office has highlighted wasteful spending on free schools. Its report in February 2017 found that free school places are more expensive than places provided by local authorities, with a place in a primary free school opening in 2013-14 or 2014-15 costing on average 33% more than places created in the same years by local authorities. A place in a secondary free school cost 51% more than a place in a local authority secondary. The National Audit Office has also exposed a reckless use of public funding on strategic land acquisitions for free schools, costing £850 million, with officials paying “premium” prices. On average, the Government paid 19% more than official land valuations for new sites.

It is not just the provision of free schools that has been riddled with mismanagement, however. The Government’s current chaotic system means that free schools can open in areas where there is no current need for new school places. That can result in reducing funding for existing schools that are already stretched to breaking point by the Government’s cuts to funding. Evidence was provided to the Education Committee by the Institute for Education in 2015, which found that

“35% of the first four waves of free schools were in districts with no forecast need and 52% were in districts with either no forecast need or only moderate need.”

In 2017 the National Audit Office also made the observation that many free schools had been built in areas with no need for school places, leaving them struggling to get enough pupils and balance the books. Admission systems need to be joined up. They should provide oversight across the whole local area and be accountable to the public, as they currently are not. What is the Minister doing to address the current fragmented system, which has led to over-supply of school places in one area while another is under-supplied?

Although Labour has committed to ending the inefficient free school programme, if parents and staff want to go further in launching and leading their own schools we will make it possible for parents and communities to come together and ask for a new school in their area. That is why we are working with the Co-operative party to develop the idea of co-op schools as a replacement for the free school model. Ultimately, we need a school system that responds to and reflects the needs of local communities and has a vested interest in the local community rather than in private profits. It is a shame that the Government do not feel the same.

It is a pleasure to have you chairing our sitting today, Ms Buck. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman) on securing the debate and on an excellent opening speech on the future of free schools. I commend her commitment to the free school programme. She has been heavily involved in setting up and running Michaela Community School in Brent.

The shadow Schools Minister, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), has reiterated Labour’s policy to politicise the running of schools, to remove academies’ autonomy, which is key to the raising of standards, and to abolish the free schools programme. That will be hugely damaging to academies and free schools and to academic standards, and it should alarm the teachers and headteachers of the 8,000 academies and nearly 500 free schools in this country. Similarly, Labour’s policy of abolishing SATs, the key accountability measure for primary schools, would be a hugely retrograde step and would again undermine the drive for higher standards in schools.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham said, Michaela Community School in Brent was rated outstanding by Ofsted in 2017. Inspectors commented on the “exceedingly strong” progress that pupils make and on their

“powerful determination to achieve as well as they can”.

We want every child in this country to have access to a world-class education, regardless of their background. Thanks to the free schools programme, extraordinary schools such as Michaela are changing what is thought to be possible and raising expectations across the country. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the Michaela Community School trust’s success in the most recent free school application round, announced last week. As she said, the proposed new school will open in Stevenage, where there is a need for new, quality secondary school places. Michaela Community School in Stevenage will replicate the ethos of the existing Michaela school in Brent, with a focus on traditional academic subjects and on teaching the value of self-discipline, excellent behaviour and responsibility for one’s own development. I wish the trust and my hon. Friend every success during the next exciting phase of establishing the school.

I hope my hon. Friend will allow me to begin by outlining how free schools such as Michaela are making a real impact on the lives of pupils across the country. All around the country, the Government have built the foundations of an education system through which teachers and headteachers control the levers of school improvement and parents exercise choice, taking power away from local education authorities and handing it back to local communities.

A key part of the Government’s reforms has been the free schools programme. The programme was established in 2010, with the first free schools opening in 2011. The Government invited proposers to take up the challenge of setting up a new school, and groups who were passionate about ensuring that the next generation is best placed to face the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead came forward with their ideas and plans to make that a reality. Indeed, my hon. Friend was one of the very early pioneers of the programme, and Michaela Community School Brent was successful in only the second round of free school applications.

We now have 446 open free schools, which will provide around 250,000 places when at full capacity; 122 of 152 local authorities now have at least one free school in their area, and we are working with groups to establish a further 285 free schools. The free schools programme has provided a route for opening innovative schools that do things differently, and successfully opened schools that local authorities would not have commissioned, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) rightly pointed out.

Of those open free schools inspected by Ofsted, 84% have been rated good or outstanding, with 30% rated outstanding. That is a significant achievement, and I congratulate the proposers and teachers for their dedication to ensuring the success of their free schools and their pupils. Furthermore, in 2018, four of the top 10 Progress 8 scores for state-funded schools in England were achieved by free schools: William Perkin Church of England High School in Ealing, Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford, Eden Girls’ School in Coventry and Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School in Blackburn.

The latter two schools were opened by Star Academies, which has grown through the free schools programme from running a single school in the north-west to running 24 schools across the country, made up of nine academies and 15 free schools, with approval to open five additional free schools. Of the 10 free schools that have had Ofsted inspections since opening or joining the trust, all have been rated outstanding.

All these successful schools teach a stretching, knowledge-rich curriculum. Each takes a strong approach to behaviour management, so that teachers can teach uninterrupted. I have seen at first hand Michaela school’s commitment to high academic standards, showing what it is possible to achieve. I urge Opposition Members to visit some of those free schools, particularly Michaela or the Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School, to see for themselves before they cast judgment on a hugely successful programme.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley for his kind comments; Europa School UK is a classic example of how the free schools programme empowers innovation, such as by teaching through a European language other than English. As he says, standards at the Europa School UK in Culham are very high indeed.

The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) said that the academies programme has led to more schools being put into special measures and requiring improvements, but the opposite is the case. In 2010, when there were just 200 academies, 68% of schools were good or outstanding; today, that figure is 86%.[Official Report, 25 June 2019, Vol. 662, c. 7MC.]

Although the Minister and I have differences on some of these issues, I have massive respect for the work he does in his capacity as an Education Minister, and I think that view is shared across the House. If I may just correct the record, that is not what I said; I said that the removal, in the Bury context, of the local education authority’s role in supporting improvement in school standards, especially through specialist, highly qualified advisers, has contributed in that Bury context to schools that were formerly outstanding becoming in need of improvement or inadequate. That is what I said. I never said that the academies programme had led to the deterioration of those schools; I said that the removal of the local education authority, which in this case was excellent, adding value to schools, headteachers and teachers, has contributed to a deterioration in the performance of those schools.

I thought the hon. Gentleman had said that was the case at a systemic level, right across the country, and not just in Bury. I thought he had said that the reduction in the school improvement department’s capacity in local authorities had led to an increase in the number of schools in special measures and requiring improvements. If he did not say that, I will withdraw the remarks, but the truth is that there are fewer schools either in “requires improvement” or in special measures than there were in 2010, despite—or, in my opinion, because of—the fact that we have such a large school improvement change.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his clarity and for his kind words about the Minister responsible for the schools system, Lord Agnew, and his understanding of the problems facing the town of Radcliffe in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I can assure him that we will continue to work with him on that particular issue.

We have approved schools with links to other institutions, such as the LIPA Sixth Form College, inspired by the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, which focuses on acting, dance, music and sound technology and was recently judged outstanding in all areas by Ofsted. In addition, in September 2012, we opened the London Academy of Excellence, a selective free school sixth form in east London, which was set up in collaboration with seven independent schools.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister join me in celebrating the investment of more than £20 million in education in Cheltenham, in the form of a new secondary school to be run by Balcarras, which will open in 2021? Although issues such as traffic will have to be got right, does he agree that the principle of investing in excellent new schools close to the community they serve must remain a Government priority?

I do agree; there was an element of that in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham. The free schools programme is important, and it is still extensive, but of course it is important that it continues in the long run. That is why I fear the Labour party’s policy and the impact it will have on the future of the free schools programme.

I was talking about the London Academy of Excellence. In 2018, the school had an A-level progress score well above the national average, and the average grade achieved was A-minus. The school reported that 22 of its pupils received offers to study at Oxford or Cambridge last year.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) raised the matter of the 50% cap for faith-based free schools. The free schools cap on faith-based admissions has meant that some of the most experienced and largest providers, with a track record of delivering good outcomes for children and young people, have felt unable to open new schools through this route. The response to the “Schools that work for everyone” consultation, published in May last year, announced a capital scheme to enable the creation of new voluntary- aided schools.

The capital scheme is open to both faith and non-faith groups; as with VA schools, those created through the scheme will be locally maintained, with the same freedoms as existing VA schools, including over their admissions. That means they will be able to give priority to admissions on the basis of faith for up to 100% of places. Last week, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, we announced the approval in principle of the bid for Hampton Waters Roman Catholic Primary School in Peterborough, which will address the need for places and meet demand from parents in the city. Consideration of two further bids has been placed on hold while we work with proposers to identify suitable sites for proposed VA schools.

The free schools programme has also helped to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. I have already mentioned Dixons Trinity Academy, a free school based in Bradford, and how its GCSE results place it among the top schools in England for the progress achieved by its pupils. However, the school is also one of the top-performing schools for disadvantaged pupil progress. Each of the other three free schools in the top 10 for progress also serves disadvantaged communities, demonstrating that high academic and behavioural standards are not, and must not be, the preserve of wealthy pupils alone.

Harris Westminster, a free school that opened in 2014 with close ties to Westminster School and that draws pupils from across London, with 40% of its pupils from a disadvantaged background, reports that 23 pupils were offered places to study at Oxbridge last year. That is another example showing that socioeconomic background need not be a barrier to academic excellence. I cannot, therefore, understand why the Labour party is so opposed to the prospect of more free schools.

Every child should be able to go to a good local school that suits their needs, whether that be a mainstream school with a specialism, alternative provision or a special school. To help achieve that ambition, we have opened 34 special and 45 alternative provision schools, and we have another 54 special and nine AP free schools due to open in the future. Furthermore, we are running competitions to find academy trusts to run an additional 37 special and two AP free schools across the country. That will bring the total number of special free schools to 125, boosting choice for parents and, crucially, providing specialist support and education for pupils with complex needs such as autism, severe learning difficulties or mental health conditions. We want these children, who are often already vulnerable and disadvantaged, to have a chance to reach their potential and live a fulfilled life.

We are not stopping there. Just last week we announced the approval of 22 mainstream free school applications in local authority areas identified as having the lowest educational attainment and in those that have not previously benefited from the free schools programme. That includes one from Northampton School for Boys, which will please my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer). Those schools will create over 19,000 new places, spread across 19 local authorities in every region. We are opening new schools in areas where there was a need to create more school places and largely in areas where there is low educational performance.

The announcement demonstrates that we continue to look for applications that have a new or innovative approach that would add value to the wider school system. That includes the Birmingham Ormiston Academy —an exciting new specialist college for 16 to 19-year-olds in central Birmingham that will offer a range of vocational and technical qualifications for students to enter television, film or theatre professions—and Shireland CBSO Music School in the Black Country, which will work with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to help young people from diverse backgrounds test their musical ability at an elite level.

In addition, we are working to open four new specialist maths schools with the Universities of Lancaster, Liverpool, Cambridge and Surrey. That builds on the success of the two existing maths schools, King’s College London Mathematics School and Exeter Maths School. In 2018, 99% of King’s College London Mathematics School mathematics students achieved an A or A* in A-level mathematics, and the school’s A-level maths progress score of 1.46 meant that pupils achieved on average a grade higher than similar students nationally. When I read out such results, it is difficult to maintain a calm voice and not to choke, given the intake of those schools. Again, I cannot understand why the Labour party, which is meant to be the champion of the least advantaged people in our community, cannot get behind the King’s College London Mathematics School, the Exeter Maths School and the other maths schools we are opening up and down the country.

We have also published application criteria for wave 14 of the free schools programme, which will again target areas that have both low educational standards and a need for additional school places. We will, of course, continue to look carefully at the free schools programme, along with all our priorities for the education system, in preparation for the next spending review.

I am enormously grateful for the support my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham has shown for free schools. They are playing an integral role in our education system and bringing high standards of education that pupils might not have otherwise received. We will continue to ensure that we have an education system that works for everybody, regardless of their background, giving them knowledge and skills that will set them up for life. Many important points have been raised, and I always welcome the opportunity to discuss the free schools programme and the range of benefits that free schools bring to the wider educational landscape.

Thank you for your chairmanship of today’s debate, Ms Buck. It has been rich, varied, useful and well-informed. The examples mentioned by the Minister in his closing remarks, from Cheltenham—my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) also mentioned that—to Liverpool, Northampton and Exeter, and the results from the King’s and Exeter maths schools, just show that the outcomes from free schools are simply brilliant. We need to celebrate those results, not try to undermine them for political gain. Those schools are contributing to our children’s lives, and we should be encouraging them, not hindering them.

I disagree with some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and other Opposition Members. Their ideological objection to more freedoms for teachers, which have brought about improvements in life chances for many children, is unsurprising but, overall, saddening. I would have hoped that politics would be put aside when it came to doing what works for our children, so that they can do better in life.

The challenge the hon. Lady and the Opposition have is that, nine years on from the inception of this policy, the emerging evidence shows that free schools—I would obviously like to see more free schools established, and faster—produce good results, as set out extensively by the Minister, and that is especially true for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The evidence also shows that they are good value for money and are an asset to our communities.

Sadly, as the Minister said, if the Opposition were in charge, free schools would be scrapped. Schools such as Michaela and Europa School UK, which was spoken about passionately by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), where lives are being turned around, would not be possible. That is simply an indefensible and incomprehensible position for the Opposition, who are putting politics above our children’s lives.

Zoning in on the closures of free schools was misguided on the part of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. She failed to put that in context. Rates of free school closures are similar to wider rates of closure in the broader state sector. It is always disappointing when a school fails, whether it is local authority maintained, free, an academy or otherwise. Crucially, however, school improvement and turnaround can be swifter in free schools, thanks to early inspection and a greater ability to adapt to recommendations.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today—I will not go into detail, because I want to wind up. Simply put, free schools change lives. They are from the community, and they are for the community—that is the beauty of these schools. They are demand-led, and they respond to local needs. If any Member were to visit many of them, they would see with their own eyes stories of transformation—children building their dreams and aspirations. We should be proud of that record, and it is why free schools should now move from success to scale.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the future of free schools.

Sitting suspended.