Skip to main content

Free Schools Policy

Volume 719: debated on Monday 21 June 2010


My Lords, I beg leave to repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows.

“Thank you, Mr Speaker, for this opportunity to update the House on our progress in reducing centralised bureaucracy in the education system, giving more power to professionals on the front line and accelerating progress on the academies programme begun, with such distinction, under the noble Lord, 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 interest. 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 per cent of outstanding secondary schools contacting the department—a remarkable and heartening display of enthusiasm for our plans from front-line professionals.

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 this coalition Government.

As well as showing enthusiasm for greater academy freedoms in existing schools, I can also report to the House that 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, the majority of them from serving teachers in the state system who want greater freedom to help the poorest children do better.

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

Given that scale of under-achievement and lack of social mobility, it is no surprise that so many idealistic teachers want to start new schools like those American charter schools backed by President Obama that have closed the achievement gap between black and white children. In order to help these teachers do here what has been achieved in America, and in order to help philanthropists, community groups and parents set up new schools, 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 £50 million saved from low-priority IT spending to this fund, which is less than 1 per cent of all capital spend allocated for this year, and we are sweeping away the bureaucracy which stands in the way of new school creation with reform of planning laws and building regulations.

Five years ago, the 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 Mr Blair laid down, and this coalition Government intend to meet it”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to this Urgent Question from the other place. I have a number of questions to ask him, but before I do, I want to make the point that this Urgent Question followed a press release issued by the Minister’s department on Friday about the process for progressing the coalition Government’s free schools policy. Just a moment ago, we were in Committee looking at the Academies Bill, and it would be very helpful for the House if we could understand how the Government’s different policies and priorities fit together so that when we are scrutinising the legislation we have a full picture of what the Government are trying to achieve. It was therefore a bit of a disappointment that the Secretary of State for Education chose to announce the process for progressing the free schools policy in a press release on Friday when we could have heard more about it in this House. However, the Minister has repeated the Statement to the House, which I very much appreciate.

We have heard a great deal from the coalition Government about the challenging economic times that we are in. We on these Benches recognise that and the real challenge of having to make cuts in the near future. How will these new free schools be paid for? The Guardian suggested, possibly on Friday, that funding from the previous Government’s proposals to widen access to free school meals will be used to pay for the new free schools policy. Will the Minister explain what assessment has been made of surplus places? Surplus places might not be a very cost-effective way of funding school places. Indeed, creating surplus places through the development of a free schools policy could be quite an inefficient way of using what will be scarce resources.

I believe that the coalition Government are keen to broaden the number of providers that deliver education through the free schools model, and I am interested to know whether the coalition Government envisage new providers coming into education being able to make a profit from using public funds to develop free schools, or whether, under some enterprise model, any surplus that was generated through the use of public funds would be ploughed back into public benefit.

I was quite interested on Friday to see a little box on the form on the website that has enough space for 200 words that are designed to show what parental demand there is for a new free school. For the benefit of those who are interested in taking forward an idea such as this, will the Minister say what he is looking for in those 200 words that will give a really good picture of parental demand? Will there be published criteria? I know that the Secretary of State will have to look at each of these applications, and I understand that there have been many expressions of interest. When the Secretary of State looks at these 200 words, over breakfast on Sunday morning perhaps, what will he be looking for to assess parental demand?

There is also a space on the form to set out the premises that have been identified or to say what the premises would be like. The Minister mentioned planning requirements when he repeated the Statement, and I am interested to know how any legislation on this will work. Again, what is required in the box about premises? Will the new free school have disabled access, for example, or will a car park, office block or corner shop work just as well?

How will local authorities be involved? The Secretary of State for Education said very clearly in a letter that he sent to directors of children’s services that there would be a role for local authorities in that local authorities are central to the Government’s plans to improve education. It would be very helpful to understand what that vision is in relation to free schools.

It is also interesting that the coalition Government have made strong statements about a commitment to fairness in approach. How will the admissions code, which I think is all about fairness for children’s educational opportunities, work in the free school setting? How will vulnerable children and those with special educational needs, about whom this House cares very much, be catered for? I am aware that I have asked a lot of questions, but it is important that this House hears from the Minister the vision and the practicalities of how it will work.

My Lords, I will try to answer all the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin. On her first point, no disrespect to this House was intended. The view was taken that this was an announcement about practicalities. The principle of the policy had previously been announced and had been long trailed. Over many years it was in the Conservative Party manifesto and it features in the coalition agreement. As the noble Baroness knows—we will be discussing it in Committee over the next three days—free schools will be set up as academies under the Academies Bill. They will have the same framework, rights and responsibilities as the academies that we have just been discussing in our first group of amendments in Committee. The view was taken that this was a practical implementation and a first step of policy rather than a new policy announcement.

On the point fairly made by the noble Baroness about the challenging economic times, perhaps I may reassure her about the modest funding for what is, in effect, a series of pilots that we will look at over the next year to see how this policy works out. The £50 million will not come from free school meals pilot money. As the Statement in the other place made clear, the department is basically recreating a programme which the noble Baroness may know—the standards and diversity fund. The money has come from the harnessing technology grant. Therefore, as the Statement made clear, it has come from money that was put aside for IT, not from free school meals.

As regards the noble Baroness’s question about profit, the school or trust must be non-profit making. As now under existing legislation, a school can subcontract to a provider of a service, which, if a commercial operation is providing that service, will charge what it needs in order to make a profit and a living. As now, the school cannot make a profit. There is nothing here which will enable free schools to be profit-making schools.

As the noble Baroness will understand, parental demand, and the Secretary of State’s breakfast, is work in progress. We have made clear that a demonstration of parental demand might be, for example, a petition. An interested party can make the application and then work with an official in the department who will work up the detailed application. As part of that process, some of the noble Baroness’s fair questions on how these things will be demonstrated will be worked through.

On premises, revised planning guidance will be issued by CLG in due course, which should free up and remove a lot of the bureaucratic systems that currently make the establishment of a school for anyone extremely difficult to countenance. The noble Baroness’s point about precisely what the requirements will be needs to be worked through.

On the role of local authorities, I have somewhere another letter—we in the department are busy writing letters at the moment—written by the Secretary of State to local authorities specifically on the free schools announcement, which is subsequent to the previous letter to which the noble Baroness referred. It makes clear that part of the process under which he will judge the criteria for whether an application to be a free school should be able to go forward will include consultation with the local authority.

The admissions code for free schools will work just as the code for academies because the free schools will be set up under the academies legislation. All the safeguards and requirements that were put in place for academies will apply to free schools. That remark also applies to the noble Baroness’s final and extremely important point about vulnerable children. All the safeguards, particularly with regard to vulnerable children and SEN issues, which will be discussed at greater length as we go forward with the Academies Bill, will be in place.

I thank the Minister for the Statement and welcome the Government’s general thrust, reflected in their announcement, of giving head teachers much more control over the environment that they teach children in. If I may say so, that is a very good direction to be moving in. But can he offer me a reassurance on the issue of stratification? There is some risk that if a significant minority of schools opts neither for academy nor free school status, many teachers will vote with their feet and go to work in these good schools. That might mean that pupils who would most need and would benefit from good teaching will actually be denied the best teachers because they will be in these other schools.

Elsewhere, the Government have proposed the introduction of independent social work practices in the style of GP practices and legal firms. Although this has been warmly welcomed by social workers who like the idea of running their own business and not being interfered with by local authorities so much, a respectable and experienced director of social services pointed out to me that if there is one service only for children with care orders, there is a danger that all the best social workers from the surrounding fields will want to work in that area and would be creamed off. We need social workers to support families where the children are not taken into care.

My second question is brief. Can the Minister assure the House that the complexity of taking forward these new measures will not distract him from maintaining a strong focus on the continuing professional development of our teachers and introducing the master’s in teaching and learning? This point was stressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester.

I am grateful to the noble Earl and hope I can give him the reassurances he seeks. On the broad point about fears of stratification—which I am sure we will come back to as we debate the Academies Bill more generally—I understand the anxiety, but I think that quite a lot of it is misconceived. I say that because on Friday, when the department made the announcement on free schools, I was lucky enough to meet beforehand a number of the teachers and teacher groups who are most interested in taking free school status forward. I have to say that those teachers could not in any way be characterised as people who are looking for a quiet life and want to teach in a leafy suburb, or who want to turn their back on vulnerable children. They formed an extraordinarily impressive and passionately committed group of people whose reason for going into teaching—some through Teach First and some through the Future Leaders programme which, much to their credit, were set up by the previous Government, who I will load with laurels as often as I can as regards those two wonderful programmes on which we want very much to build—arises out of a strong sense of social commitment. I found it immensely reassuring that those teachers see this legislation as enabling them to do more for the neediest, most vulnerable and most left behind children.

On the issue of CPD and the master’s, as the noble Earl knows, we will have further legislation coming forward later in the year. This comes back to a point made previously by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, but I do not think that the choice is between structures and teachers. Sometimes it is caricatured that people who want structural change are crazed ideologues who do not understand people, but that is not my view at all. My view, which was confirmed by meeting those excellent teachers, is that the structural change can give them the freedom to enable them to do more for the neediest children, about whom I know the noble Earl cares most strongly.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be churlish for the Church of England, in particular, to object in principle to what is being proposed? We enjoy relative freedoms in some of our schools and we would encourage those freedoms being shared more widely. However, as the Minister will recognise and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, has indicated, we will need to see the workings.

In relation to accredited providers, am I right in understanding that any parents or community groups seeking to establish a free school will be expected to work with an accredited provider? If that is the case, will the Minister welcome an assurance from the Church of England and other faith groups that we will make available all the experience we have as quite long-standing providers in the field of education? If accredited providers are required to co-operate with such groups, will he bear in mind the readiness of the church to co-operate? Perhaps I may go further and suggest that any prospective group of parents might be encouraged to co-operate with an accredited church provider. There will always be one near to where they are.

I am grateful for those observations. I would be very keen to discuss further the role that the Church of England can play in this. The general approach to providers currently is to make the system as open as possible. However, I shall follow that up further in the future.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of Future Leaders. I share the Minister’s position on the enthusiasm displayed by many teachers who are interested in setting up free schools. I also share his belief that they are passionate about trying to deliver for the most disadvantaged children.

My question is about money. We have heard about the changes in the planning rules, but that does not answer the money question. When will we get real details about the setting-up costs of these new schools, particularly in relation to capital? I am clear how the running costs will be met but, particularly where there is a shortage of school places and there are not obviously empty old school buildings, there is a real challenge about finding suitable building space and meeting the capital costs. We need facilities to deliver a decent curriculum, particularly for older children taking GCSE and A-level sciences, and I am anxious to know when we will have a little more detail.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, in particular for the work that she does for Future Leaders. On the issue of detail, that is work in progress and I shall keep her informed and posted. We made the announcement about the outline shape of the process on Friday, and we recognise that we have to provide this kind of detail. I shall keep her closely informed.

My Lords, can my noble friend give me comfort on two aspects? First, will he reassure me that the existence of surplus places in the vicinity of a proposed free school will not be a bar to the establishment of a free school? Secondly, can he tell me whether virtual schools may be established under this legislation—that is, schools which are to ordinary schools as the Open University is to universities?

I can certainly give my noble friend Lord Lucas the reassurance that he seeks on his first point. I shall need to write to him on the second point.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his post. Can he be more specific on the issue of the creation of surplus places by the development of one of these free schools? I still bear the scars from dealing—in Lancashire County Council many years ago—with the issue of surplus places. It is no good saying that there will be the same per capita per pupil for existing schools, because if there are surplus places, the per capita will have to go up to protect the curriculum.

Can the Minister also be a little more forthcoming about the relationship between the teachers, who he says have very good motives in setting up these schools, and potential conflicts with parents? Major parts of special educational needs in our schools are to do with behavioural problems. In my long experience of governing bodies where parents served, the parents would quite frequently wish to exclude the children with behavioural problems. This could totally wipe out the aims of the teachers whom he has described.

I hope that I can give the noble Baroness some reassurance at least on her second point. The provisions which we will be discussing in the Academies Bill, particularly in regard to vulnerable children, and which will be delivered through the funding agreement and will give these children broadly the same protections as are delivered through maintained schools, will also have to be delivered by free schools, which will be set up as academies and governed by the same safeguards. A free school could not decide to take an approach towards vulnerable children—statemented children—that is different from the approach of any other kind of school.

On surplus places, it was recognised as long ago as the 2005 White Paper that one of the effects of the policy was that, in some places where there was not parental demand, there would be surplus places. The whole point of the policy is to try to create something new for parents where there are surplus places.

Will the new free schools be eligible for funding under the financial assistance provisions in Clause 1(2)(b) of the Academies Bill, which in turn looks to Section 14 of the Education Act 2002?

Perhaps I may also ask the Minister about the New Schools Network. Interested groups are directed by the website to contact the New Schools Network. Does the Department for Education have any contractual arrangement with the New Schools Network? Are there any alternatives for groups of people who wish to set up a new school, or do they have to go through that process? If so, are there any financial considerations that the House should know about?

Perhaps I may also press the Minister a little more on local authorities. Whenever a new school is set up, it will have an effect on other schools, as no school is an island. Will the Secretary of State publish the criteria for the weighting that will be given to various consultations with the local authority, and the points that the local authority makes to him when there is an application for a new school?

I shall respond to my noble friend’s questions in no particular order. The funding mechanism can apply to all academies; it could well apply to free schools. The point of having a grant rather than a seven-year funding arrangement is that, particularly with a free school, which is a new and untried school, the Secretary of State might not want to be bound into an agreement for seven years and might prefer something that gives him greater flexibility. The department has entered into a contractual arrangement with the New Schools Network to provide support and advice. I will happily send to the noble Baroness the letter that sets up that arrangement. Forgive me, but I have forgotten the third point.

As I said earlier, the Secretary of State has made it clear that he sees local authorities having a role in shaping his thinking. We will need to reflect precisely on the criteria, how we set them out and what is then done with those criteria.

My Lords, I apologise for missing the beginning of the proceedings, but I do not think that anything has been said so far about design standards. The Minister will know very well that the impact of the environment in which children study is extremely important from an educational point of view. What guarantee can he give that free schools will conform to acceptable design standards?

One point of the policy is to give schools greater freedom and flexibility over where schools are set up and in what kind of building. Overall, the department intends to look at the whole set of regulations around buildings for all schools because our view is that they are expensive and bureaucratic and the process of building schools takes too long. Some of the regulations do not seem to serve any particular purpose while others serve an extremely good purpose. We will look at them all and, as part of that, we will obviously need to take into account important points about design.

My Lords, I want to pick up the point about planning. Is the Minister saying, in a technical sense, that the Government will issue a new planning policy statement referring to schools? Will that therefore apply to all schools, since planning clearly has to be neutral with regard to the question of who applies for a particular type of planning permission? Is it not the case that when the Victorians built a large number of new schools—first the churches and then the state—they discovered that setting up schools in odd corners of mills, factories, barns and other buildings was entirely unsatisfactory and that schools actually needed purpose-built new premises designed as schools, with playgrounds, playing fields and all the other facilities that schools need? Is that not still the case?

The overriding imperative in this policy is to attempt, where there is poor provision, to give teachers’ groups and parents the chance to improve the quality of teaching as rapidly as possible. Our starting point in this is that every year that passes is another school year that has been missed out and another generation of children who are falling behind. I understand entirely the points that my noble friend Lord Greaves makes. However, in the balance between perfect provision, carefully planned, and giving groups greater opportunity to start the urgent work of improving the teaching for children who need it most in areas of greatest disadvantage, we come down on the side of more flexibility over premises rather than going for the full, perfect Monty.

My Lords, will the Minister say a little more about parent-led free schools? We all want parents to be involved in the education of their children, because the more involved they are the better, but I see two problems. If parents set up a school, the contract they let to a provider could be as long as seven years. Within that time, there could have been 100 per cent changeover of parents at the school. The further point is that the parents who are the original promoters of the school may not even get their children into the school if an oversubscription criterion of, for example, a ballot were used. So there could be a situation in which the original parent promoters do not have children in schools, and within three to four years the percentage of parents with any say or influence at all over how the school meets its contract is very low. Will the Minister explain his thoughts on that?

I am grateful for the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. The truth in this, as with a lot of these things, is that the announcement made on Friday kicked off the process. There will be all sorts of important practical considerations that that process will throw up. Officials in the department, assisted by the New Schools Network, will be thrashing through those considerations and coming to Ministers with recommendations on the back of the process. These kinds of points—which are extremely important; I do not belittle them in any way at all—will need to be thought through as part of the process.