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Education: Free Schools

Volume 762: debated on Monday 22 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to review the governance and oversight of free schools.

My Lords, free school proposer groups go through a rigorous process before they are allowed to open a school. Free school trustees are subject to company and charity law. They must also comply with the terms of their funding agreement. As new institutions, free schools are monitored by departmental education advisers and the Education Funding Agency. In the small number of schools where issues arise, we have taken swift and decisive action.

I thank the Minister for that reply and welcome her to her new role on the Front Bench. I am pleased to hear that the Government are beginning to recognise that the scandals that have occurred in the past in free schools, including financial irregularities and extremist teaching, could not continue uncontrolled under the Secretary of State’s centralised power grab. However, the new model now being proposed, which includes regional schools commissioners, is only part of the solution. How can they really know what is going on at a local level when they could be supervising something like 3,000 schools each once the Government’s plans are rolled out? Is not the real solution a major devolution of power and resources to those who really can deliver school improvement across the education system?

I thank the noble Baroness for her welcome but I am afraid that—as she would probably expect—I do not wholeheartedly agree with many of the points that she raised. She is absolutely right that in the small number of cases where free schools have faced issues, swift action has been taken, but that does not paint the full picture of the great work that is going on in these schools around the country. For example, 74% of free schools inspected by Ofsted have been judged good or outstanding and, in fact, free schools are more likely to be judged outstanding than other schools. Regional schools commissioners are playing an increasingly important role in the oversight of free schools but I assure the noble Baroness that parents across the country are welcoming these schools, which are offering a high-quality education to their pupils.

Has my noble friend, whom we all welcome to her duties, seen the comments made recently by Liz Kendall, one of the contenders for the Labour leadership, who said that those who promote and open new free schools deserve credit, not criticism?

I have indeed—and it just goes to show that I am very willing to support some of the comments made by the Benches opposite. I say once again that free schools, increasingly run and set up by teachers, can be set up only where parents want them. That is why they are proving so popular. Not only are they offering a great education to their pupils; they are helping raise standards across the system and having a particular effect on those low-performing schools in their areas.

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness went to school in Northern Ireland. Why does she think that the Governments in Northern Ireland and Scotland have not followed the example of free schools?

I hope that once the devolved Governments hear of the outstanding success of free schools, they will indeed decide to take up this policy. I am very happy to repeat the statistics, but perhaps I could mention several of the outstanding free schools that we have seen: the Boulevard Academy in Hull, Becket Keys in Brentwood and Derby Pride Academy, which is helping the most disaffected young people get back into education. These are the success stories of free schools and I hope that the whole House will join me in congratulating the hundreds of teachers around the country who are working so hard to improve education in this country.

My Lords, would the Minister, whom I, too, welcome, care to comment on the fact that free schools are being opened in areas where there is no great shortage of places and that other areas cannot get the funding to meet local parental demand? Surely a Government who were committed to all children’s education would look at the need for places rather than at some sort of Conservative philosophy therein.

First, I reassure the noble Baroness that in fact 96% of free schools approved since January 2014 are due to open in areas with a need for more school places. Secondly, I think that she would agree that some parents, year upon year, have had only underperforming schools for their children. That is not an option. They deserve the opportunity to have as good access in their area as any other parent. Free schools are offering parents that option. The vast majority are opening in areas where places are needed but they are also helping to raise standards, so that every child has access to a good local school.

Does my noble friend agree that if some free schools are underperforming, parents and people in those areas should also have a say in what happens to that school in the future, and that if they want it to rejoin the local authority oversight scheme, they should be able to do so?

As I said, where free schools are underperforming we have been able to take swift and decisive action. No school should be underperforming. All children deserve a high-quality education and that is why, in the very small number of cases where we have seen problems, action has been taken to improve the situation.

Does my noble friend not agree that the hostility of the Benches opposite to free schools is somewhat inexplicable, considering that so much of the valuable groundwork on free schools was done by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who sits on those Benches?

Yes, I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, among others. As I said, free schools are delivering a high-quality education to young people across England. There are some fantastic examples. As I said, their results are really speaking for themselves.

The Minister is talking about free schools, but will she join me in saying that there are many thousands of teachers in state schools working equally hard and providing excellent education to children, such as my children, who have had a very good education? The rhetoric seems to be, “Free schools good, state schools bad”. Will she dispel that rumour?

I am delighted to join in the congratulations offered by the noble Baroness to hard-working teachers in outstanding schools across the state sector. As I have said, every child deserves the opportunity of a good education. Free schools are one way in which this can happen, but there are many excellent local authority schools. Let me reiterate: free schools are also producing high-quality education, with 74% rated good or outstanding—but I am happy to congratulate all hard-working teachers on their fantastic effort.