Motion to Take Note
That the Grand Committee takes note of the contribution made by free schools to improving educational standards.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to open this debate on free schools and the programme of this Government and the previous coalition Government, which I think I can safely say has been an unqualified success. It has been a success on many fronts: on quality and on bringing capacity, choice, innovation and competition to the system.
I will deal firstly with quality. Some 32% of free schools inspected have been judged outstanding by Ofsted, compared with 21% of all other schools, and 86% have been judged good or outstanding. This is truly remarkable, considering how early in their life free schools are inspected, when they have little if any test data to show and Ofsted inspectors generally are not rushing to award outstanding ratings to schools with few or no results. It shows that the pupils in these schools must be making good progress and that the schools must be demonstrating this to Ofsted.
It really is striking that free schools are 50% more likely to be rated outstanding than other schools. Last year, for the fourth year running, primary free schools were among the top-performing schools in the year 1 phonics screening check and key stage 1 SATs tests. Last year, for the second year running, secondary free schools were the highest performers at Progress 8, with an average score of +0.24. Indeed, four out of the top 10 performers at Progress 8 last year were free schools: Dixons Trinity Bradford, Eden Girls, William Perkin Church of England and Tauheedul Boys. At key stage 5 we have the London Academy of Excellence in Newham sending many of its pupils to Russell group universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, clearly raising the game of other sixth forms in Newham. At King’s maths school last year, 99% of students achieved an A or A* in maths A-level.
On capacity, 442 free schools have been opened, providing nearly 300,000 new school places. Adding those approved and in the pipeline but not yet open brings the total to more than 700. Half have been opened in the 30% most deprived areas of the country, and 83% address a need for places.
I must pay tribute to the free schools team at the Department for Education, headed by Mela Watts. You do not normally become a civil servant expecting to find yourself as a kind of venture capitalist opining on the merits of new organisations, but the people in the free schools team have adapted brilliantly to that challenge. I must also recognise the very significant role now played by regional schools commissioners in assessing free schools proposals.
On costs, free schools have been brought in at a cost one-third lower than under the preceding Labour Government’s BSF programme. Finding sites for these schools obviously is not easy, particularly in inner cities. I must also pay tribute in this regard to the Department for Education’s property arm, LocatED, very ably run by Lara Newman, which has been particularly effective and imaginative in this regard. Free schools have been opened not just in former offices and factories but in former police stations, a church, on top of a supermarket and in one case in a former fire station. I remember visiting that school. The planners had insisted for some reason that the pole that the firemen used to slide down had to be kept in place. I was particularly upset that, for health and safety reasons, I was not allowed to slide down it. I am delighted that 34 specialist free schools have been opened and 41 AP free schools, with more to come.
On innovation, the Sutton Trust has found that one-third of free schools have been shown to demonstrate a genuinely innovative approach to ethos and curriculum. Unfortunately, a limited number of schools have engaged with the knowledge-rich curriculum and teacher-led instructional approach now shown to be the most successful compared with the now debunked more progressive approach followed in this country for the past 30 years. As that approach is favoured by the Government, with hindsight it might have been better if the Government had been more prescriptive in this regard and aligned their policies more. I exhort them to do that in future.
However, there has been innovation in other areas. Dixons Trinity Academy, Bradford, follows Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” approach. There is innovation at the four maths schools at King’s College London, in Exeter, in Cambridge and at the University of Liverpool—the latter two are in pre-opening—at Saracens High School, Barnet, which is supported by Saracens rugby club, and at Bolder Academy in Hounslow, which has teamed up with Sky—to name but a few.
Of course, the free schools programme has provided much-needed competition for the state school sector, as has the academy programme. All monopolies suffer from a lack of competition, which breeds inefficiency and complacency—a point that Marxists always seem to miss when they are keen to create yet more monopolies. The free schools programme has been particularly effective at providing competition and creating an environment in which a rising tide lifts all boats.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to my right honourable friend Michael Gove, my noble friend Lord Hill—I see that he is in his place—who started the programme, my noble friend the Minister, who continues it so well, and my noble friend Lord Baker, who has been involved in it so much. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy—I see that he is also in his place—who invented the programme with his 2005 paper, More Good School Places. I particularly want to mention the teachers, school leaders, MATs and sponsors who have supported the programme since its early days, when it often faced significant opposition. In this regard, I will mention in particular Katharine Birbalsingh at Michaela Community School, Ed Vainker at Reach Academy, Feltham, Hamid Patel at Tauheedul and Luke Sparkes at Dixons Trinity, Bradford—but there are many more. Those of us who have been involved in starting new ventures, organisations and schools know how challenging it is; we should be extremely grateful to these social entrepreneurs and pioneers.
My Lords, I cannot speak in the debate, unfortunately, as I must be in the Chamber because I will be the last speaker on Monday night. I want to place on record the educational world’s thanks to my noble friend Lord Nash for his enthusiasm in creating the free schools movement. Without him and my noble friend Lord Hill, we would not be where we are.
I was a bit disappointed that my noble friend Lord Nash did not mention UTCs, which are a form of free school too. They are funded in the same way, are independent of local authorities and have some of the best results in the country, which we are proud of. We produce 30% of apprentices compared with 7% from other sectors, and 47% of our students go to university, three-quarters of whom do so to study STEM subjects. My noble friend supported us strongly in that, for which I thank him. Indeed, the UTC in Pimlico will join my noble friend’s MAT in Westminster later this year.
I am flattered by my noble friend’s remarks. I am sure that other noble Lords will mention UTCs, which are of course an important part of the programme.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nash, for bringing the debate to the House. It is good to have an education debate; we do not get as many of them these days as we used to.
I want to put on record the noble Lord’s commitment to the policy. I know that he believes in it and has put a lot of his own resources, effort and ability into trying to make it work. I will say that up front because in the next six and a half minutes, I will not support totally what he said. I also join him in thanking the schools he mentioned that have been successful in the free schools movement. We should welcome every good new school that we can get into the system. We cannot be against more good schools. That is the starting point. However, beyond that, I did not recognise the picture of this policy drawn by the noble Lord.
The title of the debate gives away the problem we have with the Government’s approach to free schools. It invites us to celebrate free schools’ contribution to raising standards. We owe it to the nation to do more than that. We owe it to our nation and its children to be more open-minded, not blind to the weaknesses and faults as well. The problem with free schools is that the Government have been too committed to them from the start and have lost any ability to be neutral or objective about their progress. While I acknowledge the success that there has been, I want to raise the other things that have happened in the free school movement.
Let us be clear what we are talking about when it comes to free schools. They do not exist in statute; they are essentially academies—no more, no less; there is no more legislation. They were set up to bring in new providers and parent-led schools, to increase competition and to promote innovation. Over the years of their existence, not one of them has delivered on the ambitions of their proposers at the start of the free school journey.
Increasingly, new providers are existing MATs. In the past three years of the policy, more than 80% of free schools have been just expansions of existing multi-academy trust schools. That has been at the expense of parent-led schools. The number of parents opening schools has dropped drastically during the past three years. As for competition, free schools will become the default model for the schools system in England. If you open a new school, it will have to be a free school. It is going to be a monopoly; it is a default system; it is not somebody trying to change the system but what every new school will be.
Belonging to an organisation that sponsored free schools, my experience of them is that what we have now is the most tightly controlled, most measured, most weighed, most monitored, most structured and most supported set of schools in the whole schools system. If anyone here has sat around a table discussing the progress of a free school, they will know that you have educational advisers from the DfE, people from the regional schools commission, people from the funding agency and, in the background, people from the New Schools Network. There are more paid bureaucrats around that table than in any other educational situation. I do not mind that. If that is the way to bring about success, let us go for it—but let us not pretend that these schools are free; let us not pretend that they are being allowed to get on with it.
As the noble Lord, Lord Nash, has just said, perhaps the Government should have been even more prescriptive. Gone is the autonomy, gone is the “stand-alone”, gone is the “get on with it”, gone is the “get bureaucracy out of it” and gone is the idea that the centre does not know best; what we have is that the centre apparently does know best and will do what it takes to make sure that those schools thrive. That is fair enough if that is what you are promoting—but for heaven’s sake change the title. These are not free schools, and they are no badge for anyone who believes that schools should be autonomous.
The schools are not without failures—every type of school structure will have them. Eighty-six projects did not start and we spent millions of pounds on them. Forty-two projects that started have closed—we have wasted money—and 15 schools that started have been re-brokered. If this is what we have to spend to find out what works in education, I could defend that, but what I find indefensible is somebody standing up in a debate about free schools and not acknowledging that failure. We need to learn from that failure; we need to know why the Government are spending 19% above value rates for properties in London; we need to know why £8 million was spent on a site for a UTC that never opened; we need to know why more than 50 free schools have closed and kids have had to be sent outside. Again, there is no open analysis or realistic evaluation of the progress that has been made. I shall not go through the costs, but if any local authority had spent so much money to so little effect, as central government has done on some aspects of its free schools, the commissioners would have been through the door. There is no arguing against that.
The problem is that the Government have been blinded to the weaknesses of free schools. They set them up not as a pilot to see what worked, or as an open approach where they asked, “What can we learn to put to the rest of the system?”; they set them up determined that this should be the dominant structure within the English schools system, and the evidence is not there. Where it has been good, it has presented an ideal situation for some schools—a small number of schools —to be incredibly imaginative, and every system needs a place for incubators where innovation can work. I think free schools have offered that to some extent, but they have not proven themselves as a model that should be rolled out so that every school is a free school.
Quite simply, for far too long politicians throughout all parties and generations have looked at school structure as a way of guaranteeing success for every child and every school, and it does not work. It did not work with comprehensives, it did not work with academies, it does not work with free schools and it will not work with any one structure. What works is good leaders, strong teachers, good support and effective governance, and there is nothing about free schools that guarantees more of that. If we are intent on delivering high standards for every child, let us look honestly and openly at what in all parts of our system brings the best leadership, the strongest teaching, the most effective governance and the most support from parents. If we get that right, we will do it. Some of that has been exhibited in some free schools, but it has also been exhibited in a lot of academies, comprehensive schools and local authority maintained schools. That is the problem. Free schools are an interesting experiment but they are not a blueprint for the future of our school system.
My Lords, I first express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Nash for calling this debate. I think it is fair to say that nobody in government or politics has done more than him to support the free school movement both as a sponsor who has been known to put his time, effort and money into opening schools and during his four years as the responsible Minister. His positive impact on children’s outcomes in this country has been profound.
With just two speakers so far, there has already been much discussion of the merits or otherwise of free schools. As a founder and trustee of Floreat Education, which operates two primary free schools, it is probably fairly obvious where my loyalty lies, but I want to use this debate to revisit the reasons that the Conservative Party proposed and implemented the free schools programme in the first place, because I believe that it is against those intentions that the programme should be judged.
Having said that, there is another interest I have to declare, which my noble friend has already alluded to. Success has many parents, but I think it is fair to say that the Minister and I have particular reason to claim parentage of the free schools movement. As he said, the story began with the publication of a report for Policy Exchange in December 2005, authored by myself and Charlotte Leslie: More Good School Places. In producing that paper, we were strongly supported by one our trustees at the think tank—plain Theodore Agnew, as he was in those days. The purpose of that report was to suggest changes to the schools system in England in order to raise standards. Its analysis relied on the emerging literature on school choice and competition from the US, Sweden, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
I will not detain your Lordships with all the specific proposals in the report. Some of them were subsequently adopted by the Conservative Party when I became director of policy, including an early version of the pupil premium—the great cause of common interest with the Liberal Democrats and a foundation stone of the coalition education policy. Another proposal was to create a non-LEA-based route to setting up new schools. Others, such as locally elected pupil advocates, were not accepted. I believe that the key insight of that report still stands, which is that it is the Government’s job to help to create more good school places. The DfE is still using that language 13 years after we first coined it.
So how does the free school programme measure up? In that report we proposed that excellence should be achieved through two means. First, there needed to be an expansion of the number of good school places, making it radically easier for new providers to come into the state sector to open schools, challenge underperformance and bring new ideas.
Secondly, we proposed the creation of what we called an equity challenge: making sure that in this system those who had the least—who had been failed by schools—were given extra support, including extra financial support, to make them attractive to successful schools, and had the resources needed to address their educational challenges. Expansion challenge and equity challenge were, we posited, the way to achieve excellence. It is against those yardsticks that we should judge the success of the programme.
On the expansion front, the evidence is incontrovertible. The preceding Labour Government had inexplicably allowed 1,500 schools in England to close between 2001 and 2010, despite the birth rate increasing by 128,000 per year over that period. The Government have opened—as my noble friend mentioned—442 new free schools, which will provide 250,000 places when full, and 261 further free schools have been approved but are not yet open. According to the New Schools Network, 83% of open free schools have been opened in areas of recognised need—because of a shortage of local places, a lack of choice, or poor local standards.
Expansion is not just a numbers game: it is also about innovation and choice. The free schools programme has allowed the creation of an extraordinary range of schools—schools such as Floreat and the University of Birmingham School that have a major focus on character development; schools such as Michaela and the West London Free School trust that have pioneered a modern approach to knowledge-based learning—as well as a range of other exciting provisions, including new boarding schools such as Holyport College and Dixons Music Primary. In a way, that is the greatest achievement of the programme: to have unleashed—to take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris—dynamic leadership, followed new ideas, challenged the status quo and delivered higher standards.
The free schools programme also measures up well on the equity challenge. According to the New Schools Network, free schools are three times more likely to be set up in the most deprived areas of the country than in the least deprived, and are more than averagely likely to attract pupils with a first language other than English. There is more work to do to attract the least well-off pupils to the schools, but from first-hand experience I can tell the Committee that it becomes much easier to attract those families when a school is up and running, because they are often very risk-averse, wanting to stick with the known rather than taking on the risk of being a pioneering group of parents. Once that risk has gone—once the school is established—the number of children on free school meals tends to go up.
The result of getting both expansion and equity challenges right is excellence, of which my noble friend outlined many examples in free schools: they are more likely to be judged as outstanding by Ofsted, the average secondary free school Progress 8 score is the joint highest of all school types, and there are many other examples. These considerable achievements will only increase over time.
As we look to the future, however, it is important not to be Panglossian, and to accept that the programme needs to evolve and improve further. As my noble friend Lord Nash said, the DfE has sometimes struggled to find the right sites for free schools. Indeed, the lack of a permanent site forced the deeply regrettable closure of the Floreat school in Brentford, a heart-breaking event for pupils, parents and staff. The creation of the LocatED group within the DfE should stop this happening again, but can the Minister reassure the Committee on that?
Furthermore, while there has undoubtedly been a need to generate more school places to meet a rapidly growing school-age population, the birth rate is now falling. For me, that means that the programme should shift back towards creating new provision in areas of underperformance or lack of choice. There was an imperative to create seats for the many extra bums, but that tended to favour large incumbent academy trusts. Does the Minister agree with me—and with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris—that the time is right to recapture some of the dynamism of the original programme, which was more supportive of teacher-led start-ups?
Finally, many open free schools now find themselves in single-academy trusts or small multi-academy trusts. Such organisations, which often have only a few year groups, can be vulnerable to events outside their control, and there is a need to bring these schools together into larger, less fragile groups. Will the Minister say what the DfE is doing to make this happen?
To conclude, the free schools programme has been highly positive for children in our country. Combined with other reforms, such as the creation of a much more rigorous curriculum and exam system, it is leading to consistently better educational outcomes. An expansion of choice, combined with a focus on equity, has indeed led to excellence, with hundreds of thousands of pupils benefiting. That is a wonderful achievement, of which we should all be proud.
My Lords, when I looked at this debate I expected that we would discover most of the enthusiasm and intellectual drive behind this movement being expressed in this Room. I have not been disappointed. We seem to have everybody who knows anything about the subject here. For the rest of us, finding out exactly where the people who are involved in the free schools movement think it should go will be one of the lessons we will take away.
However, I am afraid I am with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. Indeed, she said much of what I was going to say—and, irritatingly, in a very good style—about the problems. The first is that if we have a lot of enthusiasm, where is the control? As the noble Baroness pointed out, more than 50 schools are closing. I thought, from the House of Lords Library briefing, that 29 free schools had closed in the past three years. We have a fairly high casualty rate. This must call to everyone’s attention that this is not a panacea that will be universally successful and guarantee success.
Once again the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, beat me to it: the fact of the matter is that free schools are a way of creating more academies that has been created by academy trusts. The problems of the academies are effectively going to the free schools. They are one and the same beast. It might be a different way of creating them, but they are the same thing. They are a movement. They have the same types of criteria, so the creature should be seen as one whole. Can we get an idea of how we will look at this?
I remember that the noble Lord, Lord Nash, discussed regional schools commissioners. Indeed, I think it was in this Room that we first discussed some things about them. It might be a good idea to find out exactly what they think they will be doing to give a more strategic focus. The days of the innovative, wonderful parent and teacher-led start-up are probably behind us—or they will occur only very infrequently. The noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, shakes his head, but it certainly has not been the fashion of late. He now nods his head. I wonder how Hansard will deal with that. We must look at what is happening now as a good example of where it might go.
I discovered when looking through some of the briefing about what academies are doing, if we can accept that this is a way into the academy movement, whether independently or as part of it, that we have a juicy little problem of off-rolling when it comes to taking exams. I am afraid that a name that stuck out when I was reading through an article sent to me by the Guardian is the Hewett school in Norwich. I discovered only today—I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, for letting his office know only today—that it is an academy in the trust that he helped to run, or I think was the head of. In one year it lost 20% of its pupils before they took exams. The Hewett school always strikes me because it is the school that I went to, as did my siblings. It is a very big school. It went through days when I was there of being the big comprehensive success story, with a huge sixth form, to special measures. What can go up can go down under any system. I hope that the free schools remember that. Sometimes things can go horribly wrong.
Are the schools commissioners going to look at and check off-rolling to stop the gaming of the system? If they are not, we will miss the group that we should be concentrating on: those who are difficult to educate, who probably do not have the best parental backing, and those with a very high number of hidden special educational needs, which is quite normal in those who fail. Will we look at this? Will the schools commissioners take a lead in this, or are we looking at somewhere else? Will it be Ofsted—although Ofsted cannot look at somebody who is not there? Will we make sure that academies, free schools and everybody else take full responsibility for those people they have recruited and who go through the system? If we are not going to, there is a fundamental flaw here in the way we are being organised. We must address this vigorously.
We have a system which may well have benefits, in a Panglossian way, as the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, would have it: everything for the best in the best of all possible worlds. If the sun is always behind you and everything is going well, any system will do well. If you recruit the right parents and the right students, you will succeed. But when things go wrong is the test of any system: how do you handle the problems and the mistakes? I hope we get a good answer here, because if that is not built into this system, it does not really matter what you do with your successes—your failures will still mar it, probably to the extent that it will have to be got rid of in the end.
My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships will all agree that every child in this country deserves the best education possible. Before I speak about free schools, I will say a few words about our 47 schools, which include 13 free schools.
Almost one in 40 children in London now attends a Harris Academy and 95% of our secondary schools are outstanding, against the national average of 23%. With the exception of two schools, all were either failing or in special measures when we took them over. We have four world-class schools: in Thurrock, Greenwich, Crystal Palace and Battersea. Battersea was the worst school in Wandsworth only four years ago and last year the Progress 8 score made it the best school in Wandsworth and the fourth best in the country. Last year’s results for primaries were: national average 64%, Harris 79%. The average proportion going to a Russell Group university was 12%; ours was 24%. Some 90% of our students now attend university—an amazing number.
Before I continue, I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Baker, who started the CTCs. The first school he ever gave us was Crystal Palace, when it had a pass rate of 9%. Today it is world-class. We are changing the lives of many children in that area over the years. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and Michael Gove for continuing to give us failing schools and free schools that we can make successful to give the children of this country a better education.
Turning to the subject of the debate—free schools—I think the idea was brilliant. It was what the country needed to put new schools into difficult areas. We have 13 free schools. Seven are outstanding, two are good and four have not been inspected yet as they have not been open long enough. With most of these schools, the parents have asked us to run them.
Harris Westminster, a sixth-form free school, has had amazing results. It is a school for bright children from working-class homes. More than 45% of them are on free school meals and free transport. Last year, 16 students got to Oxford or Cambridge, eight of them black—your Lordships will remember the report by David Lammy in 2015 which said that there was not one black student going to Oxford or Cambridge—and 70% of these children got to a Russell group university. This year 64 students are having interviews for places at Oxford or Cambridge, providing they achieve their results. The sixth-form college now has more than 600 students, which is more than Westminster School itself. I have to say that Westminster School has been very helpful in allowing us to use some of its facilities. This school is changing the lives of many students and giving them a better future.
Our outstanding free schools include: Harris Academy Tottenham, which has primary, secondary and a sixth form and which, after the building that has been going on for the past four years, got outstanding; Harris Invictus Academy Croydon, Harris Primary Academy Shortlands and Harris Primary Academy Beckenham, which all got outstanding; Harris Westminster, which I mentioned; and Harris Primary Academy East Dulwich. The Mayflower Primary School is going to be one of the biggest primary schools in the country with more than 1,000 students. It was also in Portakabins for two years.
One of our schools, Harris Aspire Academy, which has been graded as good, is for children who have been excluded from not only Harris schools but other schools in the area. Inspectors said this school has “outstanding leadership” and “outstanding teaching”, and the only reason why they could mark it as only good was that the attendance was 93%—which is excellent for a school with such difficult students. They said that the school would be marked outstanding if attendance were 96%.
I believe that free schools have helped the Harris Federation to give children a better chance in life, and our schools are now four and a half times oversubscribed. The only thing I would like the Minister to look at is the funding of them at the beginning. It is very difficult when you have a school with the potential to have 1,000 or 1,200 students, and you start off with 180; on average, you would need £900,000 to keep the school going. That is very difficult as you cannot make it break even until the second or third year. However, what has happened with them has been great. It has given free schools the opportunity to put in new buildings which will be there for the next 30 to 40 years and I am really in favour of that.
Before finishing, I would like to thank Sir Dan Moynihan and his team for all their hard work in making these schools so successful and changing the lives of many children. I recommend that the department and the Minister continue the free schools programme. We have three more to open next year.
My Lords, I find it so refreshing to hear input from real-life, personal experience rather than simply a Library brief or desktop research. I congratulate my noble friend, who is my good friend.
“Uncertainty” is a word we hear constantly these days, but noble Lords will not hear it from me; I would most certainly never use it in the context of free schools. I could not be more certain and confident of the real need for free schools and their positive impact on our society. However, I recognise that there are understandably some weaknesses, faults and failures in the movement, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, passionately told us about them earlier. We can and must learn from them, and we ignore them at our peril.
On the topic of certainty, I am equally certain that I could have derived more benefit from my time at school. In recent years, I have come to know schools and their vital role in society rather well through my work with two charities, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and The Outward Bound Trust. I chair one and I am deputy patron of the other. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, in particular, has had to respond to the squeeze on local authority funding by building direct links with schools. Today, it has more than 3,000 directly licensed organisations providing access to its life-changing awards. Most of these directly licensed organisations are schools, and they cover the full range from local authority controlled schools to free schools, academies and ancient public schools. All of these can be good schools of course—there is no doubt about that—and surely all that should matter to any of us is that as many of our children and grandchildren and the nation’s children as possible are receiving the very best education that we can provide. So on this occasion perhaps we should put ideology to one side and just ask whether free schools are helping to deliver the desired result. I think we can unequivocally say that they are. In fact, in my considered view, free schools are already shining very brightly indeed.
Disruption is critically bad news if you are running Heathrow Airport, Gatwick Airport, a railway or a logistics business, but it is always a massive positive everywhere else. I know from my pretty wide business life that competition is seldom welcomed, rarely embraced and quite often painful in the extreme but, objectively, it is a good thing. It is good news because it motivates and encourages improvements in quality and services and most certainly pushes up standards across the board in schools. That stimulus for all to do better is just one spin-off benefit of a new free school. They undoubtedly shake up and wake up the mediocre in education. They can also satisfy parental demand in areas where existing school provision is poor or standards are persistently low, and they have a proven ability to be nurturing as well as focused on high academic achievement.
A friend of mine drew my attention to an exceptional free school in one of the most deprived areas of Newcastle upon Tyne, West Newcastle Academy. It is doing an amazing job of raising standards and empowering staff, parents and pupils alike in a community where excellence and aspiration has to date been in pretty short supply. That free school is also exceptional in another respect: its geographical location. As we know, the overwhelming majority of free schools that have opened are in London and the south-east. The people of the north—that remote other country where workers make things and also voted leave in large numbers—deserve to have the same chances and opportunity as Londoners to send their children to schools that enable them to maximise their potential and flourish.
Wherever there is pressure on existing schools—and let no one underestimate the stress that oversubscribed schools can create for parents and pupils alike—or where established schools are underperforming, let us please encourage the creation of new free schools to provide choice and opportunity, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. These new openings should never be considered or seen as a threat to existing schools—any more than a new furniture store on the opposite side of the high street or retail park spelt doom for the businesses I used to own and run—rather, as a spur to work even harder to deliver the best results. By the best results, I do not mean just hearing impressive parental feedback or achieving stellar examination rates, but teaching social skills and giving kids the resilience and self-confidence they need to become employable and to be good parents and responsible citizens. If we are to fulfil the potential of our country, every single child must have the opportunity to go to a great local school. Free schools can help increase the numbers who have that opportunity, regardless of their background, where they live or their parents’ income. We should enthusiastically and unstintingly support their expansion across the country in the interest of all our children.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Nash, for making this important debate possible, for his work in this area over so many years and for opening this debate in the way he did. I also pay tribute to him as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Looked After Children and Care Leavers, and for his most important work when he took through the Children and Families Bill five years ago. He introduced or accepted an amendment—I think he introduced it—that placed a duty on local authorities to allow young people in local authority foster care to remain with their foster carers until the age of 21, where both the young person and the foster carer wished to do so. It is very moving when I speak to foster parents who are so pleased they can keep on looking after their young person until the age of 20 or 21. Scotland and Wales then chose to follow. At the time there was a clamour that the same thing was not done for children’s homes, but in his report on children’s homes last year, Sir Martin Narey introduced the notion of staying close, so that now children’s homes are developing a similar model to allow their care leavers to stay close to their home. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for this important work.
I declare my interest as a trustee of a mental health service for adolescents and the of the child welfare charity, the Michael Sieff Foundation. I join in celebrating the academic attainments achieved at so many academies, particularly the academy that the noble Lord, Lord Nash, kindly arranged for me to visit: the King Solomon Academy in Paddington Green, north central London. It is part of Ark Schools, a multi-academy trust. It is in an area of high deprivation, with many families living on low incomes, many immigrant families and many families living in social housing. The King Solomon Academy has a focus on depth before breadth, with a strong emphasis on English and mathematics. In December 2008 and December 2009, Ofsted rated the school as outstanding. In 2015, the school was rated as the best non-selective secondary school in England, according to the Department of Education GCSE league tables. When one walks in the door, one reads an inscription on the wall along the lines of, “We expect all our pupils to go to university”. It is an academy, not a free school. I am afraid I can speak only from my experience, but I hope it is helpful to the discussion.
When I visited, I found the 28 year-old Head, Max Haimendorf, a graduate of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, enthusiastic and inspiring; he was one of the first Teach First programme cohort. An acquaintance spoke to me of the extraordinary dedication of one of the school’s teachers, whom he knew well and said that sitting observing an English class, he saw that all the pupils were concentrating on what their teacher was saying and that as they listened, they clicked their fingers, an expression of their excitement at learning, encouraged by their calm and assured teacher. In a science class, he spoke to one of the BAME pupils, a girl—by far the majority of pupils were from that background. She spoke of how much she enjoyed her education, how her family were thoroughly involved by the school in her education and of the extra-curricular activities that she enjoyed: the theatrical performances and the symphony orchestra. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nash, for that that experience, which stays with me vividly to this day.
However, when we speak about educational attainment in free schools, we must also ask ourselves at what cost this comes to children who are not in academies or free schools, or who do not fit in with the culture of these schools. I think this has come up in previous discussions. I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, talk so strongly about ensuring equity in these schools. Most of the young people going to an academy were the children of immigrants who had great aspirations for them, but what about those children who are not from those kinds of backgrounds? What about Traveller children, looked-after children and children from families who have been failed by the system for generations? Professor Sonia Blandford, chief executive of the charity Achievement for All, points out that about one-fifth of our children are being left behind. She grew up in a low-income family and she was the first person in her family to go to university. Her charity is widely respected and effectively supports many schools. She points out that free schools cost the Government £57,000 per annum per pupil with any form of needs, which is about £30,000 above other pupils. That seems an extraordinary difference. I am sorry not to have written to the Minister, but maybe he can confirm or challenge that figure.
We know that high-quality early years education provides an invaluable boost for vulnerable children, yet the best provision, maintained nursery schools—schools that receive supplementary funding because they provide a qualified head teacher, qualified teachers and a qualified special educational needs co-ordinator—are struggling to find the £59 million a year they need to survive. It appears that there are favourite children in the system, a favourite model, and others may be losing out as a consequence. I urge the Government to be more even-handed in their approach and to take the following steps to make our education system more inclusive and effective.
First, I urge both the Government and the Opposition to avoid any further revolution in our education system. Revolutions are always tempting but they seldom deliver on their promise. They tend to detract from the most important tasks. Secondly, I urge the Minister to embrace the most important tasks, which are recruiting and retaining the best people in education, offering excellent continual professional development to those in posts and ensuring the most disadvantaged children and young people benefit from the best teachers. We hear that it is often the case in the new free schools that those who are the most challenged and disadvantaged are getting the best experience. I know there are currently funding pressures, but that is troubling to read that last year continuing professional development funding in both secondary and primary schools significantly reduced.
Thirdly—and relatedly—the Government should make Ofsted less punitive and more supportive in its approach. The best-performing nations do not have an inspection system as punitive as ours; they have more supportive ones. I ask the Minister to look at Lucy Crehan’s book on education and the highest performing PISA nations. I warmly welcome the commitment from the previous Education Secretary to reform Ofsted, and I hope that is being sustained. The anxiety that Ofsted currently creates drives good teachers and head teachers out of the profession. They are put off by a limited regime where the primary focus of the school is Ofsted, not the children or the best way to help them learn.
My time is up. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these concerns and to join in celebrating the achievements of the free schools—which I recognise—but there are complexities in this area. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Nash for providing the opportunity for this Committee to draw attention to the contribution that free schools have made to improving educational standards. Providing an excellent education for all children and ensuring that no child, regardless of their background, is left behind has been a key driver of educational reform by successive Governments in this country, and free schools have made a significant contribution to it. I pay tribute to my noble friend’s long-term and tireless commitment to creating opportunity in education. I have personally witnessed it since 2006, and I am sure that it goes back even further.
We know that education can provide a pivotal impact on a child’s life chances and opportunities. For example, official statistics show that: 52% of male offenders and 72% of female offenders have no qualifications whatever; one-third of young people who have been excluded from school have been involved with drug dealing, as well as being exposed to growing trends of knife crime; and fewer than half of those with no qualifications were in employment, compared with eight in 10 of those with at least one qualification. Educational failure perpetuates the cycle of disadvantage, preventing generation after generation reaching their full potential.
When I was the executive director of the Centre for Social Justice, we documented the impact of this failure of education in our ground-breaking report Breakdown Britain. We identified significant educational inequality, which showed that emphasising average attainment was masking very real failures at the bottom of the system, where disadvantaged children were falling further and further behind. In 2006, children from disadvantaged backgrounds were five times more likely to fail academically than their peers. Most importantly, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were often not being given the opportunity to succeed, as evidence showed that schools with high numbers of pupils on free school meals were more likely to be considered underperforming by Ofsted. The budget uplift in education in the 10 years prior to 2006 was not helping those from disadvantaged backgrounds work their way to a brighter future, and 30,000 children were leaving school with no qualifications or skills and were not attending schools that were good enough to give them the chance to change that.
In the recommendations to tackle this which were included in the follow-up report Breakthrough Britain, we advocated pioneer schools, which were inspired by the successful US charter schools. The pioneer school recommendation was deeply influenced by my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy’s report More Good School Places. The aim was to provide innovative solutions to deeply entrenched educational failure by setting up new schools led in a way that gave them the flexibility to make the best decisions for children in their local area.
Since then, the rollout of free schools has dramatically increased the number of available school places, particularly in the most deprived areas of the country, improving the life chances of a large number of children. Nearly half of the schools that have opened are in the most deprived areas of the country, as we have heard. The schools that have opened provide 290,000 school places, overwhelmingly in areas where more school places were needed. There are 266 schools approved to open, which will add further to this capacity. They are offering genuine life opportunities for children to fulfil their potential and flourish in a good school. Free schools have an excellent Ofsted record, as we have heard, with 86% of them rated good or outstanding, and many are among the best-performing schools in the country. Unsurprisingly, they have been incredibly popular with parents and attract more first-preference applications than any other type of school.
Free schools have ensured that more and more children have a chance to succeed. They are the highest performers at Progress 8, and results are above the national average at GCSE and A-level. The mission to close the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is ongoing, but the gap is closing. The figures in the disadvantage gap index show that this gap has shrunk by 13% since 2011. Since we wrote the Breakdown Britain report, the gap in some areas has shrunk by as much as 30% in key stage 2.
Disadvantaged pupils do better at free schools than at any other type of school, and schools often have the freedom to help address some of the complex social challenges unique to their locality. For example, in areas with high child poverty and youth crime, schools have been able to extend the school day to provide a safe place for further learning and extracurricular activities. For every single one of these statistics, there is a child who has being given the opportunity to thrive.
However, there is still more to do to ensure that this gap continues to close and that children from disadvantaged groups continue to get access to a quality education. For that reason, I ask my noble friend the Minister to comment on the plans he has for ensuring that more disadvantaged children can benefit from free schools. More pupils are now in good schools than in 2010, but there are still 1 million children attending struggling schools, who deserve the opportunity to fulfil their potential, too. As more free schools open over the coming years, the Government should be ensuring that all children, especially the most disadvantaged, can take advantage of the opportunities that they present.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Nash on calling this debate and I pay tribute to his long-standing contribution to improving educational outcomes for all. He has shown a passionate commitment to free schools, both as an Education Minister and through his work with Future, the multi-academy trust.
Free schools are the single most successful group of state schools. They outperform their competitors by almost every measure. They are driving up educational standards, exposing poor performance, improving access and choice, and pioneering innovation. Most importantly, they are delivering for pupils, especially the most disadvantaged.
Let us look at the evidence. Free schools have created 290,000 new places, in schools that were, on average, 29% cheaper to build than previous school-building programmes. Some 31% of free schools are rated as outstanding by Ofsted, compared with 21% of other schools. As we have heard, they are three times more likely to be located in the most deprived areas of the country than the least deprived. They are more likely to be oversubscribed than any other type of state school. More places at lower cost, higher performing, serving the most deserving and in high demand from parents—so it is strange that the shadow Secretary of State has said that Labour would end the free schools programme because:
“They neither improve standards, nor empower staff or parents”.
On standards, free schools outperform other state schools at key stage 1 and get better A-level and GCSE results. They attract more first-preference choices from parents than other schools, and record numbers of teachers are setting up free schools. So, yes, they improve standards, yes, they empower staff and, yes, they empower parents. To be on the side of free schools is to be on the side of teachers, parents and, most importantly, pupils.
The programme owes much of its success to the bravery, vision and perseverance of the team of my right honourable friend Michael Gove when he became Education Secretary in 2010. Naysayers—and, indeed, some officials—said that ordinary people could not set up schools, only the state could. In fact the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, had already started to highlight and challenge the “cartel” in charge of our schools. My noble friends Lord O’Shaughnessy, Lord Hill and Lord Nash, alongside Michael Gove, truly broke this monopolistic way of thinking and in so doing enabled the hundreds of applicants to come forward and set up their own free schools
Free from uniformity and monopoly, we now have a system rich in choice, diversity and innovation. We have schools being set up in former churches, fire stations and government offices. But more than buildings, we have new approaches. Parents, teachers and businesses are putting forward many valid philosophies about how to educate our children. At the same time, they are also delivering for the most deprived children.
Take the London Academy of Excellence, the core purpose of which is to provide social mobility through education. It was set up by Brighton College after it learned that children in the local area—one of the most deprived in the UK—had nowhere to go for sixth form, and more than two-thirds of the students are from families who have never sent a child to university. Since 2014, more than 1,000 LAE students have gone on to study degree courses, the majority at Russell group universities. Not only has the LAE played a leading role in raising standards in one of the poorest parts of the capital, it has set a new benchmark for others to emulate.
Take the maths schools, King’s College London Mathematics School and Exeter Mathematics School. These schools attract disadvantaged students who typically do not pursue a maths path, and send 100% and 98% respectively of their leavers on to STEM courses at university. King’s Maths School topped the Department for Education A-levels table last year. With Liverpool opening and Durham now confirmed, it is worth noting that none of these brilliant schools could exist except as free schools.
Take School 21. The founders wanted a broader approach to education, encompassing academic study, well-being and problem solving. Serving pupils of all backgrounds in Stratford, east London, School 21 is outperforming the national average on every metric, and is rated outstanding, with the inspectors commenting:
“Outstanding leadership has produced a highly effective school within a short time. Pupils across the school make exceptional progress … The behaviour of pupils is outstanding”.
Individual examples such as these inspire, just as the overall statistics reassure. Yet the policy is not perfect and can be improved in one important respect; namely, funding. The Treasury has not provided enough. It is as though Apple produced the iPhone, found it successful, and then declared it should produce fewer of them. Free schools must be championed and promoted, and be given sufficient funding to allow this to happen. Their potential to raise standards through competition must be properly realised. The Treasury’s historic hostility to surplus places has masked school failure by forcing parents to send their children to failing schools, thereby keeping their pupil registers artificially high.
Yet this should not detract from the theme of today’s debate. Free schools, in levels of engagement from teachers and parents, their impact on pupils, and educational outcomes, are speaking for themselves. The impact is profound and their contribution to improving educational standards beyond doubt. Free schools are living proof that poor-performing public monopolies harm the most disadvantaged and that, only by breaking them, can we give all the citizens of this country the public services they truly deserve.
My Lords, it is not often one has the opportunity to join an evangelical meeting in the House of Lords, and I am very grateful for this debate. First, I declare an interest as president of the outreach programme at Imperial College London. I do not know how many schools I have visited in the past 12 months, but I have spoken to about 55,000 school children and at numerous teaching conferences, as well as visiting three schools a week on average across the country. I have focused mainly on the poorest parts of England, including the south coast, the area 50 miles east of Cambridge where it becomes a complete desert, some parts of Essex, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, the north-east and the West Country—I spent some days living there and talking in schools, mainly in Devon. The noble Lord, Lord Nash, is to be deeply congratulated for securing this important debate. I want to pay tribute to him as a respected Minister for Education and somebody who I like and deeply admire for what he has done. I also pay tribute to him for his notably successful free school, the Pimlico Academy; I think I was the first Pimlico lecturer some years ago, as he will remember.
As children progress from primary to secondary, and then on to Year 12, they are increasingly channelled in school. Irrespective of the subject, young people are required to learn more and more about less and less. The curriculum encourages knowledge of facts, but so often their school subjects are not brought into a wider context or focus. For example, in science, they may learn a great deal about physics, chemistry and biology, but they are not able to put this into an ethical or societal context. Science literacy is not merely a matter of knowing a great number of facts about physics; it is much more about understanding the relevance of that science—for example, understanding the societal issues involved. Because of the narrowness of the curriculum, science literacy is even worse in students not studying science. This is important, because in a democracy, we need to make wise decisions about how science is used. These decisions cannot be left to scientists, or—worse still, dare I say it—to politicians. Every piece of modern technology may hold great promise for us, but it is often undercalculated, and the significant threats are usually forgotten and ignored until too late.
I have explained what kind of schools I mostly visit. Many teachers in these parts of the world seem very deeply depressed, and I travel long distances on the train back to London in the evening feeling equally depressed about what I have seen and discussed. So many teachers feel they are undervalued and are unable to offer a real education because of the juggernaut of the curriculum. The idea of establishing free schools, which are not so heavily bound to the curriculum, where teachers can choose more what they teach, is really valuable—I have no doubt about that. Replacing much-constrained local government with the increased involvement of parents is also a brilliant notion. It should work because so much of education depends on family background. In many parts of the country, there are excellent teachers but children go home to houses where there are no books, no interest in education and no understanding of what success it might bring in the future. This is much more difficult in schools where there is not a sufficient budget for a mix of A-levels; for example, mixing science and humanities subjects, which is important for making these things contextual.
In my view, funding for education is more important than funding for the health service. I say this in front of the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, who was a Health Minister for the past few years. We are grateful to him and sorry to see him leave his post. We spend too much time considering the NHS but not nearly enough considering the underfunding of education, which I am told about again and again in state schools that I visit throughout the country.
The interesting ideas behind establishing free schools should allow flexibility, but what we observe, on the whole, is far from a massive success. There is very little hard, peer-reviewed evidence that in the majority of free schools children have a better idea of how their learning in science or humanities fits the societal context to make them better citizens. In my visits, I have seen insufficient capability for debate and discussion. Moreover, teachers tell me that it is often extremely difficult to get parents really involved. Indeed, the statistics published recently by the Sutton Trust suggest that the involvement of parents is decreasing, not increasing. It is probably true in two-thirds of those schools.
At Imperial College we had a very close relationship with Harris academies. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, did not mention this but he will remember that for three years we taught science in a special context to his students who came to our Reach Out Lab. We did the metrics, with proper educationalists measuring the impact on those students. We found that it changed their aspirations and the way that teachers thought about how they might teach their science, but at the end of the three years, we had an unfortunate message from the finance officer, who told us that working with the Reach Out Lab at Imperial was no longer possible because they could not afford the luxury of working with us. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has pointed out, there is not sufficient money in the system, but our metrics demonstrated that improved science capital is not a luxury. It is desirable. Nick Gibb said that the schools represented,
“a renaissance … of intellectual thought and debate about pedagogy and the curriculum that used to be vested only within the secret garden of the universities”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/12/18; col. 359WH].
That is counterproductive to what we were trying to do. There seemed to be no understanding that that was very far from the real case, so I regret that statement.
When free schools start to fail to attract pupils, their £4,000 capitation fee starts to reduce as well. Eventually such a school with failing pupils may end up with inadequate finance and may no longer be financially viable. As your Lordships know, a number of free schools started with great verve but have collapsed. This is a disaster, not only for the children but for the teachers and the system. It is really shocking when teachers are already dispirited.
Another issue is the employment of untrained teachers, which nobody has mentioned. Of course, it could be argued that I am untrained teacher. I do not regard myself as being capable of teaching in a school. I could not do that job. I can come in and give a short lecture but what people want from me is the expertise to raise the morale and the profile of a particular subject, perhaps briefly, once a year. The Government’s acceptance of the failure to have trained teachers in these schools is massively disrespectful to the teaching profession. The qualification in teaching is the lowest standard with which we need to start. When I qualified as a doctor, I was not really able to do very good medicine—I needed time to continue training in order to get to the right level, just as teachers do. We should never forget that in relation to our training system. It is important that teachers acquire the ability to communicate. The noble Lord, Lord Nash, has given an account of how successful these schools are, but the metrics are dubious. The Government’s own reports suggest that we do not yet have a clear idea of whether the free schools have been truly successful: more research and details are needed.
My first question for the Minister is: what peer-reviewed research into the metrics is currently being carried out by the Government, and which metrics are being used? If he cannot answer that, perhaps he could write to me. Secondly, will he tell the Committee what money has been spent on schools that have failed, or that started but did not finish? It would also be helpful to know whether he agrees with the Sutton Trust’s report, which states that on the whole the free schools that have been established do not attract the most needy and deprived children in those areas. One problem is that the competition that everybody has talked about is not a good idea in relation to our education system. Education should not be about competition but about collaboration, and to introduce competition into our education system is not sensible. The success of individuals depends not on those individuals themselves but on how they work with each other.
My Lords, I refer the Committee to my registered interests. Incidentally, it is deeply appropriate that we are having this debate in the Moses Room: in Hebrew Moses is known as Moshe rabbim, or “Moses our teacher”. I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Nash, for bringing forward this debate and all his work in this area, and to the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, who has followed on. But I pay particular tribute to my friend, the right honourable Michael Gove, for making this important initiative a reality. Michael Gove is an outstanding politician, a great thinker and, most importantly, a great doer, who makes things happen—as with this programme.
The 2010 Conservative manifesto stated that the free school initiative would create a generation of good small schools with high standards of discipline. The programme is still in its infancy, but we should be encouraged by the findings of the report by the Sutton Trust and the National Foundation for Educational Research, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Winston. We can look at statistics in so many ways. I looked at the statistics that say that at key stage 4 pupils in free schools perform slightly better than those in other types of school, and that disadvantaged pupils in free schools perform at the equivalent of quarter of a grade higher in each subject compared with their peers in other types of schools.
As with any new initiative, however, all is not perfect and we must learn from the mistakes. It is clear, however, that a solid start has been made, and I encourage the Minister to ensure a further rollout of free schools wherever serious and competent individuals are prepared to get involved in their running.
The process can be challenging. I had the opportunity, with colleagues, to create a free school in Borehamwood in Hertfordshire. I was a trustee of the successful Yavneh College, an academy of real excellence. As I mentioned in the Chamber recently, according to the Sunday Times, Yavneh College was the best-performing non-selective secondary school in the country. Following its establishment in 2006 and its remarkable achievements thereafter, it seemed obvious to all of us that a primary school should be added to the campus, and in September 2016 Yavneh College Academy Trust expanded to include Yavneh Primary School, a new free school announced by the then Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, who was tremendously helpful in establishing it. The primary school is enormously oversubscribed. A new state-of-the-art building will open in a few months. Yavneh places an emphasis on love of learning, and on compassion and care for others. The school motto is “A world built on kindness”. The ethos has four key elements: respect, kindness, politeness and courtesy.
The Jewish community itself is blessed with a number of successful free schools, benefiting pupils in London, Leeds and Hertfordshire. One extremely positive initiative has been where free schools have joined together and created a network to give each other mutual support, and expanded into developmental school improvement and continued professional development for staff. Would the Minister take a look at this initiative and see whether this kind of co-operation can be replicated elsewhere?
One of the schools involved in this initiative is Etz Chaim Jewish Primary School in Barnet. The head teacher Yvonne Baron reflected how the pupils were involved from the foundation of the school. She said:
“They were literally the centre of every decision we made”.
So many things were the pupils’ ideas, from the colour of the lunch trays to the height of the furniture, from the annual talent show to the charity months. As a school, Etz Chaim has flourished. One teacher remarked about the excitement she felt setting up the year 4 and 5 classrooms from scratch, something she said most teachers will never experience.
The most recent recipient of free school status in the Jewish community has been Kisharon, a wonderful special school, often described as a jewel in the crown of the community. I thank my noble friend the Minister for his support and encouragement. Kisharon is now building a state-of-the-art campus, increasing its capacity from 40 students to 70. The new arrangement between the department and Kisharon has driven up educational standards and improved the facilities for learning disabilities. Becoming a free school has facilitated the opportunity to create specific expert learning zones for children with autism and other multiple learning difficulties and disabilities.
On the basis of this positive story, will my noble friend the Minister take a further look at the issue that, as things stand, a special school cannot be a special and faith school? The experience of Kisharon rather proves that this is not only possible but desirable.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Nash for initiating this debate. I pay tribute to his tireless dedication to the free school project during his time as a Minister and beyond. I would also like to mention my noble friend Lady Evans, our Leader, who I had the great privilege of working with before she joined your Lordships’ House. She was instrumental in leading the New Schools Network to empower and support hundreds of free school applications to become reality. I have had the pleasure of hosting many events in Parliament on behalf of the New Schools Network, and I have great admiration for the efforts and dedication of everyone involved in bringing the free school policy to fruition, in particular, the founder of the New Schools Network, Rachel Wolf, and the honorary life president, Diana Berry, for their outstanding work and many years of exceptional commitment. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Hill for supporting the free school network when he was Education Minister.
I confess that I am not an expert on education. But I am a passionate believer in vision and aspiration. I know from my own experience that few things are as gratifying as watching the kernel of an idea grow and flourish. I also know that success is seldom instant. Hard work, commitment and careful cultivation are needed. Before you get things right, often you have to get things wrong. This is simple evolution.
Why am I saying this? Because I find it frustrating to see that free schools are so quickly dismissed or vilified by critics. We could start by remembering that the free school initiative is still very much in its infancy. In my area, Harrow, the free schools that have been set up are doing very well. Pinner High School already has a number of awards under its belt. Avanti House School was very well received by the local Hindu community, and even received a visit by Her Majesty the Queen during her Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Both schools are heavily oversubscribed and were driven by grass-roots voluntary community members. I pay particular tribute to Nitesh Gor, who founded the Avanti Schools Trust. I am delighted that his services to education were recognised when he was awarded an OBE last year.
Many free school projects are funded by philanthropists such as my noble friend Lord Harris, which helps reduce the burden on taxpayers. Nationally, the story has also been encouraging. It is not perfect, but it is going in the right direction.
I was looking at the data released by the Department for Education about the Progress 8 metric, which measures progress in relation to prior attainment. According to this, free school students scored a quarter of a grade higher than children with similar starting points across the country.
I say this to the critics of free schools: many free schools are already producing excellent exam results, as we heard earlier from my noble friend Lord Nash. Many are in areas that could hardly be described as affluent. Taken as a whole, secondary free schools cater to an above-average number of disadvantaged students, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, mentioned earlier. Many cater for ethnic minorities and even children of asylum seekers. All of this demonstrates that free schools are not the exclusive preserve of a privileged few but are inclusive of any community that wants to take them up. Any argument to the contrary is not only simplistic but insulting. It suggests that poverty and aspiration do not go together, that only the affluent can afford to be ambitious and that any attempts to challenge the status quo are futile. That flies in the face of everything we claim to stand for in this country, and we would do well to keep that in mind when we debate topics of this nature.
Of course, there is a flip side. A number of free schools have not taken off despite extensive planning and investment. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, mentioned 50 that were opened and subsequently failed. Taken in isolation, people may say this demonstrates that the free school project is flawed, that it does not work. But this brings me back to the point about allowing time, space and tolerance for a policy to find its way. We should see the bigger picture. For every free school that has been judged to have failed, more have succeeded. For every mistake we have made, lessons were learned. As a society we have become impatient. We expect every social ailment to be cured quickly and precisely, without fault or friction. But that is not life. That is not reality. Free schools are a creative response to systemic failure.
Successive Governments have tried and failed to solve the challenges facing our education system, for which there are many reasons. It is not the fault of one Government, political party or ideology. It is much deeper and more complex, and the changing world around us makes it even more so. We are at a dramatic crossroads for our country where the whole world is moving forward at a pace previously unimagined. The digital age is revolutionising economies, rewriting the job market and reshaping the skills we will need. No one can predict what the market will look like in 20 years. Education, like the future, needs to be fluid. From what I have seen, free schools are helping to bridge the gaps not only in skills but in the very essence of our thinking. It is not just about grades, it is about learning. It is not about following formulas but about finding fresh approaches. In the words of the head teacher of Pinner High School,
“we are not adapting to the future, we are creating it”.
Long may this continue.
My Lords, next door there are 150 people repeating the same six things at great length. Here, there may be fewer of us, but if we recognise that we are talking about the education of our children, I think we are talking about something rather more important for the long-term future of our country, and there is also much more chance of us hearing something new.
It is a great pleasure to speak in the same debate as my noble friends Lord Nash and Lord Agnew. Between the three of us, for better or worse, you have the history of the free schools policy in government since 2010. It is a particular pleasure to speak alongside my noble friend Lord Harris, who has done more personally and directly to help children in our country than the rest of us put together.
When I think back to my first meetings with officials in the summer of 2010 and I look at where things stand today, it is undeniable that this policy has made a lasting difference. It was not introduced by coercion but, certainly initially, bubbled up from below. That element of permissiveness and experimentation in the free schools policy motivated me most.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, I have never believed that structure is more important than people. I never argued that academies or free schools would automatically be better than local authority schools simply because they had a different structure. I never suggested that free schools were guaranteed to succeed, although I certainly believe that if you delegate responsibility and trust people more, more of them are likely to succeed.
I was always clear, too, that some were bound to fail, but given the system-wide failures in our education system that we inherited, I felt that giving people more responsibility, allowing them to respond to local needs and encouraging them to challenge the status quo was a risk worth taking. If you look at the overall results, as well as some of the individual success stories we have heard today, I still think that that was the right call.
It is also worth recalling how bitter the opposition to the idea of free schools was at the beginning. We were told that no one would want to take part, that free schools were being unfairly bankrolled and that they would cause mayhem in the system. None of that has turned out to be true; they have the same funding, the same inspections and often far cheaper buildings than under the old regime. When I became a Minister, I realised that there was a game among academy sponsors, who were competing to see who could get the most expensive new building out of the department. It is true that finding premises in London was difficult and sometimes horribly expensive—I am sure that it still is—but we applied downward pressure on costs overall.
Getting the first 24 free schools open in less than a year, when it had typically taken three, four or more years to open a new school, was hard pounding. It would have been impossible without three groups of people. The first was my Secretary of State, Mr Gove. He delegated responsibility to his junior Minister 100% but would also come charging towards the gunfire when things got lively—the opposite of some Secretaries of State we can all think of, who want to control everything and then blame others when things go wrong.
The second group was the individuals behind the free school proposals. Whenever things were difficult, I found that meeting the proposers was a guaranteed way to cheer me up and make me buckle down again. Their enthusiasm, hard work, bloody-mindedness, vision and commitment to making sure that local children had a decent education drove us on. Without them, there would be no free schools.
The third group was my officials. I remember their looks of incredulity at my extremely permissive approach, bearing in mind that they had all been working for Mr Ed Balls, who had a plan for everything where everything fitted together in perfect logic. Then, under the leadership of Mela Watts—who I believe is still doing the job today—they got stuck in. They had to find premises, negotiate leases and construct vetting procedures—the whole lot. They offered me words of caution when they needed to but drove forward into unknown territory with great grace, humour and commitment. This could not have happened without them either.
I want to offer two thoughts. I have not been close to this for quite a while. My first thought is for the Government and my second is for the Opposition. My thought for the Government concerns something that my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy touched upon, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. One consequence of the success of free schools is that they have become part of the establishment. The thing that I thought was most exciting about them was the innovation and disruption that they brought to the system. I remember that one of the early proposals was for Spanish bilingual primary schools. That would never have come from the traditional state system. We have to hold on to that disruptive and imaginative approach. In relation to maths schools and special schools, we need to keep the enthusiasm there was from the parents of children who had learning and other disabilities to bring a new approach. They must keep their disruptive edge. I am sure my noble friend Lord Agnew is seized of the importance of that. We do not want to create a new orthodoxy where there is a new mantra of two legs bad, four legs good, or whatever it is.
Secondly, and briefly, to the Opposition, I echo the points that were made earlier. I hope that people do not one day feel the need to make huge amounts of structural change all over again. For those who may think that what it needs is just a bit more co-ordination and centralisation and a small, gentle helping hand, we all know that helping hands from government can quite rapidly become overintimate embraces and beyond that come close to strangulation. We need to beware on both sides.
We all know how easy it is for government Ministers to make policy announcements and huge, grandiose promises. The free schools policy is a clear example of where we underpromised but overdelivered. For that reason alone, it is worthy of notice and celebration.
My Lords, first, I ought to declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a former head teacher of two maintained-sector schools in deprived communities. I say that because this has been very much a debate about free schools, but they have to be put into perspective. Of course the noble Lord, Lord Hill, is right that among the speakers we have the three architects of free schools and our last three Ministers of Education in the House of Lords. All three have brought real care, understanding and consideration to that office, and I thank them for that.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Nash, for facilitating this debate. I do not suppose it is a surprise that we are having this debate, given how many Conservative Peers are involved in the free school movement and how the—I shall use the word “tentacles”, but it sounds a bit harsh—tentacles of the new school network have gone into government. Indeed, our current Leader of House was involved in the free school movement. The noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, was right and wrong. First, he was wrong about his policy statement and his idea of free schools. Free schools started in the 1960s and 1970s. There were two free schools in Liverpool. A character called John Ord started one of them. They did not believe in a set curriculum; it was about what they wanted to do. They did not believe in hierarchy. They certainly did not believe in paying their head teacher, if one existed, huge sums of money, or the chief executive, if one existed. So he is wrong about the history of free school movement, but he is right that systems cannot improve outcomes.
Teachers and leadership improve outcomes. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hill, who said virtually the same thing. He said we should not believe that structures improve our education system—they do not. I lived through a period in Liverpool when the then Labour Party believed that all small, single-sex secondary schools should be closed. It believed we should not have small, single-sex schools. It did away with them all and we had large, co-ed, community comprehensives. That did not improve teaching at all. What improves teaching is quality. We mention countries such as Finland, which was of course top of Mr Gove’s list at one stage; one of the things such countries all have is a belief in teachers. They are well paid and well trained and have continuous professional development. That is what we have to do in this country.
I was slightly disappointed when the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned a particular academy he had been to. I think anybody who speaks on education should visit a variety of schools, so that they know what they are talking about. Sadly, we are focused at the moment on just one type of school. I would like to take him to my old school in Halewood, one of the most deprived parts of Liverpool. That three-form entry school had results above the national average and a gold standard arts award. I could take you to dozens of other schools like that. The noble Baroness, Lady Finn, talked about these wonderful, successful schools, but I do not like playing one school off against another. I do not like saying, “This type of school is successful”, implying that other types of school must be failures. I notice the noble Baroness did not mention the £138 million spent on opening 62 free schools, UTCs and studio schools that have either closed, partially closed or failed to open.
I have followed this debate closely, believing strongly in the maintenance of an education system that is free at the point of delivery and in which schools are accountable to the communities whose children and young people they educate. I welcome successful businesspeople and entrepreneurs, including the noble Lords, Lord Nash and Lord Agnew, being prepared to give not only their time and expertise but their money to their beliefs in the education system. I welcome that; there is nothing wrong with that and we should not denigrate it. I am sure I am not alone in going to a Carnegie library—mine was in Liverpool—which is one of 600-odd such libraries, similarly built through philanthropic endeavour. They are still operating, and are now listed buildings.
Business sponsorship, a more modern form of philanthropy, was of course at the heart of the development of city technology colleges, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, in the Education Reform Act some 30 years ago. The first wave of CTCs had 20% of their capital costs provided by a sponsor. Over time, the CTC model has morphed into academy schools, with free schools—an umbrella term that includes 442 free schools, 50 university technical colleges and 27 studio schools—being an important subset of academy schools.
I was puzzled—I still am—about why this debate is about free schools rather than academies. The Government’s initial, romantic vision of a free school was of a school set up by a group of parents or teachers to provide education particularly suited to the needs of children in a particular community. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Hill, is right when he says that we should not let them become part of the establishment. If they were successful—and many were—their success was in challenging the status quo and being different. I remember going to TreeHouse School in Finchley, which started as a free school. It was set up by parents who were angry that schools did not provide for the needs of autistic children. They challenged the system; they are the sand in the oyster and they wanted to make a change. That is right and proper, but sadly I do not think that is happening any more.
Like most romantic visions, the reality is very different and the majority of free schools are now constituent parts of multi-academy trusts. According to research by the Education Policy Institute in November 2017, nearly one-fifth of free schools had joined very large multi-academy trusts. In May 2018, a report by the NFER and the Sutton Trust, which I think has been mentioned, found that three-quarters of free schools set up in the past two years were part of a multi-academy trust, with parents involved in setting up only 4% of recently established free schools.
Free schools—and academies, of which there are a much larger number—have had a significant impact on the education system in England, but that impact is very much like the infamous curate’s egg: while it is good in parts, many parts have not been good at all. How has the education system benefited from free schools? One group who have definitely benefited are those chief executive officers of academies and academy chains who earn three-figure salaries, significantly more than even our Prime Minister, and in some cases even more than vice-chancellors of universities. The Minister is trying to ensure that the salary increases of school leaders are kept down to 1.5%, but given their freedoms, are they allowed to do that?
My concerns—not about the free school movement but about free schools—were voiced at the beginning of this debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. My principal concern is the democratic deficit in the academy sector, which, again, is not in the philosophy of why free schools were set up. Academies can choose to be totally detached from the local authority in which they are situated, with little or no accountability to the community they serve. If a free school is part of one of the large national or system leader multi-academy trusts, with schools in many local authority areas, the head of the trust will inevitably be many miles from some of the schools and inaccessible to parents should they wish to raise a concern.
The Education Select Committee was told by the leader of a major trust that the schools in the MAT were more involved with other schools in the trust than with those in their area. Academies are not obliged to have governing bodies—although many still do—and many academy head teachers have much less freedom and autonomy; decisions are taken by the chief executive at the centre. One of the key freedoms that academies and multi-academy trusts have is to choose which subjects of the national curriculum to teach. I was interested when the noble Lord, Lord Harris, talked about social skills being taught. The sad thing is that if you have those freedoms, you can choose not to do PSHE. Will he join me in urging the Government that those social skills should be taught at school?
The announcement was made that first aid and CPR would be taught in schools. When the Minister replies, will he say whether that will apply to all schools, including free schools and academies? The noble Lord, Lord Harris, also asked the Minister about the financial difficulties of small schools. He is right that there are problems with small schools. Look at how rural schools struggle, when they may be the only beacon in a community. Will the Minister agree that small schools in deprived communities, which are the heart and lifeblood of that community, should be financially supported as well?
We have heard that the jury is still out on whether free schools are any more successful educationally than other schools in the community they serve. What we do know is that free schools have a smaller percentage of students eligible for free meals than local community schools, and that in areas with above-average deprivation, free school pupils are more affluent than the neighbourhood average. This is because many free schools have very expensive uniforms, and this has the effect of weeding out applications from poorer parents. One well-known school in west London has a uniform supplier that charges a minimum of £47 for a blazer with braid and a badge you cannot buy and sew on to a cheaper blazer. It is twice the cost of one at John Lewis and has to be dry-cleaned. A pullover costs £22.50—three times the cost of one from John Lewis—and so it goes on. This is not fair on people who struggle financially. It seems that some free schools have close regard to the unaffordability of school uniform. Having wealthier parents is unlikely to make a school slip down the performance league tables.
Free schools always take pupils from other local schools, making those schools less viable. In rural areas, for example, the secondary schools closest to new free schools lose half a form of entry at year 7. Free schools do not have a good record in meeting the needs of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. Free schools are better than the average—or is that worse?—at excluding pupils. That is one league table where academies dominate the premier league. Free schools are seeing fewer and fewer parents getting involved. It seems to me that there is no such thing as a “free” school. They cost the taxpayer more than community schools, they cost parents more than community schools and they are a burden, not an asset, to other local schools.
What about the future? I do not agree with the Labour Party that free schools should be abolished. Free schools should have the same freedoms and responsibilities as all other schools.
My Lords, I welcome the return of the noble Lord, Lord Nash, to the fray. For two years, we sparred across our respective Dispatch Boxes, which I very much enjoyed, but suddenly, he was gone. We subsequently learned that this was to spend more time with his family, but not in the fashion normally associated with political withdrawals: the noble Lord’s family is synonymous with the Future Academies trust, which runs six schools, including a free school. I note that, at one time, the Minister was also one of its trustees.
I was aware of the Leader of the House’s background when she was appointed to a ministerial post from her role at the New Schools Network. Prior to today, I was unaware of the role of the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy; the noble Lord, Lord Nash, described his as having “invented” the free schools programme. Adding the noble Lord, Lord Hill, to the mix, someone less charitable than myself might point to a pattern in those connections.
I listened closely to what the noble Lord, Lord Nash, said in his introductory remarks. I have to say that he did not surprise me. I say that because my research for the debate revealed a newspaper article from October 2013 in which the noble Lord was taken to task by my predecessor, my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and accused of misleading Parliament on the performance of free schools. I understand and accept where the noble Lord is coming from, which naturally colours his view of free schools. Mine, however, is rather less rose-tinted.
As has been pointed out by noble Lords and in recent reports by the Education Policy Institute and the Sutton Trust, judging the contribution of free schools to improving educational standards after seven years in existence is somewhat premature. Even with that caveat, it should be pointed out that free schools account for just 2% of all state-funded schools in England and parents in two-thirds of the country are not within reasonable travelling distance of either a primary or secondary free school. Surely any improvement that it is possible to demonstrate can only be a tiny one; there is no evidence that free schools are better overall than any other schools, once intake is taken into account.
I chuckled at the plea of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkham, for ideology to be put to one side. Free schools form part of a wider ideological drive by the Conservative Party, aided and abetted for five years by the Liberal Democrats, to undermine and weaken local authorities in general, particularly through preventing them developing the maintained school sector. Since 2015, there has been a presumption that no new school can open unless it is part of the free school programme. In the main, new free schools have been opened since then as part of academy chains, meaning that they are not in the mould originally intended.
My noble friend Lord Winston pointed to the successes that he has encountered in free schools, but when these schools were launched, they aimed to encourage parent groups to establish their own schools, increase the number of schools with innovative approaches to their curriculum or ethos and meet the demographic needs of specific areas. Having noted that research bodies have expressed the view that not enough time has passed for meaningful judgments to be made on free schools improving education standards, I will be careful in assessing those aims, but it is not unfair to say that, thus far, free schools have not lived up to their billing of being either led by parents to a sufficient extent or a major source of curriculum innovation. The number of schools established with parental involvement was at its height in the early years of the programme, with more than 40%, but that figure has now dropped to less than 20%, which is most regrettable.
Of those that parent groups did launch, several have since been taken over by academy trusts. One high-profile casualty was reported last summer, when the Greenwich free school—one of the first to be approved under the scheme and founded by a group that included a former head of strategy at the DfE—was handed over to a large multi-academy trust. That free school is now just another academy, suggesting the Government’s vision of schools created by enthusiastic activists has run out of steam.
Academy chains now dominate the free school programme, as we have heard. Some 39% of all free schools have now been opened by multi-academy trusts, which is reflected in the view of the Sutton Trust’s report that,
“as free schools have now become the default model for new schools, with all new academies characterised as such, it has become a vehicle for the expansion of MATs”.
In other words, it is a monopoly—something referred to disparagingly by the noble Lord, Lord Nash, as Marxist. As a Marxist, I can say that he needs to do some more reading on that subject. I am not advocating monopolies. I really worry about the blindness of anything that can be seen to be countering the argument for academies and free schools we encounter from the Government side.
On the assumption that it was not the Government’s intention that free schools should become a vehicle for the expansion of MATs, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that development and whether he and his ministerial colleagues intend to take action to redress the balance and provide the necessary resources for the pendulum to swing back towards parents. That is what we want to see, and it is why Labour in government will end the programme to further extend free schools and academies, to be replaced by a model that I will refer to later.
There is also the question of a failure of free schools to address demographic need. The Government have allowed the situation to develop where local authorities have statutory responsibility for providing school places in their area, yet they cannot tell free schools or academies to take in more pupils to meet that need, even where those schools are below capacity. That anti-local authority policy makes no sense and Labour will bring it to an end.
In its report of November 2017, the Education Policy Institute found that free school growth had been greatest in the areas most in need of new school places, as it should be, but it also found significant numbers in areas where there was already an excess number of places. More worryingly, I suggest, the proportion of pupils who attend free schools that are eligible for free school meals is 13.3%, against 14.7% in all schools. That was even worse in reception year, with proportions of 32% eligible for free school meals, but only 24% in free schools. That is clearly an issue that has to be addressed by the Government.
I am also concerned that free schools drive a coach and horses through sensible planning of school places and consequently waste considerable amounts of money, as outlined by my noble friend Lady Morris. I do not welcome the closure of any school so I will not overemphasise the fact that 10% of free schools have closed, but they have obviously done so at considerable cost, as outlined by my noble friend Lord Winston.
The question of what price is paid for school sites is obviously a serious one, because it has been highlighted by the National Audit Office that considerably above the going rate or the market rate has been paid. That represents profligacy with public funds, especially at a time when school budgets are stretched to breaking point. Transparency should be at the heart of state-funded schools policy. Perhaps the Minister would care to say whether the DfE is still playing fast and loose with public finances as regards free schools and with the information provided on those finances, which is often difficult to achieve?
As the shadow Secretary of State has made clear, Labour will end the free school programme and restore the right of local authorities to open and commission new schools, but we are not doing so at the expense of parents. We have often voiced our concern about the cost-effectiveness of the programme, but we will ensure that there is sufficient capital investment and that the manner in which we spend public money is not hidden from the public. Labour policy is centred on accountability and, wherever possible, local accountability. We will return decision-making about new schools and changes to schools to the local level. We are clear that this kind of decision-making should be centred in one place and that there should be proper local engagement. Local authority decision-making is done through a proper and transparent process, unlike, I have to say, regional schools commissioners, who make decisions behind closed doors with no proper public consultation or process. That will come to an end under the national education service that we will establish.
We will introduce a new generation of co-operative schools. Those community-run schools were introduced under the Government of Tony Blair, and there are currently around 350 of them in place at the moment, which is not widely known and perhaps not widely enough talked about. We want to encourage more of these schools to open again where new schools under parental control are sought. We will allow parents and teachers who want to get involved in running them to work with local authorities to do so. But the ultimate decision as to where they should be established will rest with local authorities, not with the DfE. I think it somewhat bizarre that it is the Conservatives who favour central planning over a devolved structure, but that will change as soon as we have a general election.
What we will not do is close existing free schools or academies. Going forward, the educational landscape will be based on local accountability at the heart of it, not central control, with parents increasingly marginalised, as we have heard, under the free schools programme. That may not involve the major structural change that the noble Lord, Lord Hill, fears, but it will offer a more positive and participative approach to our children’s education in the future.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Nash for calling this debate to provide the opportunity to speak about the successes of the free schools programme and the contribution that they have made to improving educational standards across our country. I thank my noble friend for his continued commitment to the free schools programme and the dedication he showed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the School System before me. I acknowledge his work with Future Academies, the trust responsible for establishing Pimlico Primary, a free school that has been rated outstanding.
The free schools programme was established in 2010, with the first ones opening in 2011. The Government invited proposers to take up the challenge of setting up a free school—groups which were passionate about ensuring that the next generation is best placed to face the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Now, eight years on, the benefits of their hard work can be seen across the country. As of 1 January this year, 444 free schools are open, which will provide 250,000 places when at full capacity. To reassure the noble Lord, Lord Watson, 121 of 152 local authorities now have at least one free school in their area, and we are currently working with groups to establish a further 265 free schools, currently at different stages of pre-opening.
I agree, obviously, with my noble friend Lord Popat that the free school story is a positive one. There is a growing body of evidence to show that free schools are improving educational standards. I will come to that in more detail later. I am pleased that my noble friend highlighted in particular two free schools in Harrow: Pinner High School and Avanti House. These schools are a credit to those involved in setting them up and the teachers who work there.
Ofsted’s latest information shows that, of those free schools that have been inspected, 85% are rated good or outstanding. This is a fantastic achievement, and I congratulate the proposers and teachers who have worked so hard to achieve this. The performance data of free schools speaks for itself. Free schools are among the highest- performing state-funded secondary schools, with pupils at the end of key stage 4 having made more progress on average than pupils in other types of state-funded schools in 2018.
In 2018, four of the top 10 provisional Progress 8 scores for state-funded schools in England were achieved by free schools: William Perkin Church of England in Ealing, Dixons Trinity in Bradford, Eden Girls’ School in Coventry and Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School in Blackburn. The latter two 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 across the country, made up of nine academies and 15 free schools, and it has approval to open two more free schools. Of the 10 free schools that have been inspected by Ofsted, every single one has been rated outstanding. In addition, Dixons Trinity Academy achieved extraordinary results in 2017 and last year with its first set of GCSEs, placing it among the top schools in England for progress achieved by its pupils. Strikingly, the progress score for disadvantaged pupils was higher than for the whole school, including their more affluent peers.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, asked about some longitudinal analysis on the impact of free schools. I have offered data here and I can offer some more, but I will write to him to bring all these strands together. On a personal note, I happened to be at that lecture at Pimlico Academy six or seven years ago. I was as inspired as the hundreds of children listening to the noble Lord that day. I speak as someone who failed chemistry O-level, but the noble Lord brought that subject alive to me that night.
My noble friend Lord Kirkham and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked about disadvantage. There are numerous examples of free schools helping to improve outcomes for these children. There is the Reach Academy Feltham, which opened in 2012, which is a small all-through free school set up by a group of teachers in an area of high deprivation. Ofsted rated it outstanding in 2014. It was one of the top-performing schools nationally for progress in 2017, with disadvantaged pupils making more progress than other pupils. In 2018, provisional results show that the school has a progress score well above the national average.
I join my noble friend Lord Hill in publicly thanking my noble friend Lord Harris for the achievements of his trust. In just one example, Harris Westminster, which opened in 2014 and with close ties to Westminster School, 40% of its pupils are from disadvantaged backgrounds and 18 pupils got into Oxbridge last year. These schools show that the socioeconomic background does not need to be a barrier to excellence. To reassure my noble friend Lord Kirkham and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the whole of the country is benefiting. Last year, 16 free schools achieved outstanding judgments from Ofsted. Eleven of those were outside London, including Birmingham, Lancashire, Slough, Leeds, Coventry and Stockton-on-Tees.
Free schools have challenged the status quo, injecting fresh approaches. We are drawing on the talents and expertise of groups from different backgrounds, giving local communities and parents more freedom and choice so that every child can go to a good school that suits their child’s needs, whether that be a mainstream school with a specialism or an alternative provision or special school. Indeed, I give public credit to my noble friend Lord Baker for his tireless work in creating the UTC programme. In 2016-17, 21% of UTC key stage 5 pupils went on to an apprenticeship, which is three times the national average.
My noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy made the crucial point that this is all about creating more good school places. This is not the only route, but it is leading the way through social entrepreneurship. Many noble Lords in this debate have played a crucial role in the free school programme, but I can safely say that my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy has to be one of the godfathers.
My noble friend Lady Stroud also asked about disadvantage. It is important to stress that nearly half of all open free schools are in the 30% most deprived areas in the country. We are proud of that fact. Results also show that when disadvantaged pupils attend these free schools they perform well at key stage 4. However, we know that there is more to do to ensure that free schools reach out to pupils in these areas, and with the most recent free school wave, Wave 13, we targeted the third of local authorities with the lowest standards and lowest capacity to improve, putting free schools in places most in need of good schools. We are currently evaluating those bids.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, is concerned about the cost of school buildings, but it is important to point out that we have reduced the building cost per square metre by over 30% from the framework that we inherited from the Labour Government. My predecessor, my noble friend Lord Nash, created LocatED as a specialist buying agency for property sites for free schools and it is already showing data that it is acquiring sites below the red book value, which is the benchmark for the cost of buildings.
I turn to special schools and AP schools. Our ambition includes children with special educational needs and disabilities, and children in alternative provision. We want them to be able to do their best in school, reach their potential and find careers leading to happy and fulfilling lives. To help achieve that ambition, as of 1 January this year we have opened 34 special and 41 alternative provision free schools. This includes the Pears Family School, which achieved an outstanding rating from Ofsted in 2017, with inspectors noting the high-quality therapeutic care and teaching alongside the strong progress made by its pupils.
My noble friend Lady Finn pointed out that we have now opened two maths schools in partnership with highly selective maths universities, King’s College London Maths School and Exeter Maths School. The aim of these schools is to prepare our most mathematically able students to succeed in maths disciplines at top universities and pursue mathematically intensive careers. We have two further maths free schools in pre-opening—one with St John’s College Cambridge and the University of Liverpool Maths College.
At the other end of the educational spectrum we have in pre-opening the London Screen Academy, supported by Working Title, which last year was the inaugural recipient of Screen International’s outstanding contribution to UK film award. This new school will provide film industry-focused vocational training for 16 to 19 year-olds alongside a broader curriculum. I give that as just one example to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy of the innovative groups still becoming involved. We are certainly encouraging free schools to be part of MATs to draw on the central support that they offer. This is simply part of the evolution of the programme and addresses the problem mentioned by my noble friend Lord Polak about school collaboration.
I take the point that the Minister is making, but will he address the point about parental involvement and the decreasing number of free schools being established at the behest of local parents?
The noble Lord will be aware that any academy needs to have an academy council that must include two parental representatives.
That is not the same point.
No, I accept that, but we review all bids and they are selected on merit. One of the lessons that we have learned from the programme is that free schools are better inside MATs. Being inside a MAT does not mean that it is one size fits all. I speak as someone who set up four free schools myself inside a MAT. There is a wide range of different practice inside those schools. To reassure the noble Lord, just because a free school is in a MAT does not mean that it is outside parental involvement or input.
I remember a time when members of the Labour Party were against free schools because they involved parental interest. They were opposed to free schools because they thought that parents would not be able to take on the running of free schools. Now they seem to be saying that they are not in favour of free schools because they do not involve parents enough. I do not know if there has been a change in the policy in the intervening years.
I rather agree with my noble friend that the Opposition seem to have gone on a journey. When free schools were originally mooted under my noble friend’s tenure we were told that no one was capable of creating one other than the Government. We have put paid to that myth.
How can the Minister say that when he inherited an academy programme introduced by the Labour Government, which had the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and other people sponsoring schools, not local authorities? It is an inaccurate description of what went on.
There were 200 out of some 22,000 schools. My noble friend Lord Harris was not a parent. We certainly built on the early foundations that Labour created in the academies programme, but there was not a great deal of evidence in those early 200 of parental involvement in their creation. Specifically, the programme went on after very experienced, dedicated people such as my noble friends Lord Nash and Lord Harris, became involved. They were well beyond parental age at the point.
This is a really important point. I pay absolute tribute to the Labour Party for the academies it set up, which were obviously based on the CTCs and on a principle of autonomy at school level, of competition of choice and variety and innovation. But it must be pointed out—it is a while since I opened a free school or applied to open one—that you physically had to go round to parents, even if you were not a parent group yourself, and get them to commit to send their child to your school. It was baked into the creation of schools in a way that has never been done in this country, regardless of the nomenclature of free schools, academies or anything else. That alone is one of the unique and extremely welcome features of the free school movement that must continue to play a critical role in whatever form. I agree with my noble friend that the security of being in a multi-academy trust can be helpful, but that parent-driven demand is critical to its success.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned off-rolling and picked out a single school, the Hewett school—which strikes a slightly raw nerve, as I was the chairman of the trust that took it over. That school was a wonderful example of what we were dealing with in the reforms that we brought to education. The school was built for nearly 2,000 pupils and run into the ground by a local authority. At one point it was the largest secondary school in England, but the local authority hung on to it, delivering appalling education until, finally, when my trust took it over, there were fewer than 500 pupils. It was in chaos. Sorting out such situations, where a trust inherits protracted and entrenched failure, is no small undertaking. That ex-local authority school is a classic example of why the nirvana of so-called local democracy is meaningless in many cases.
We want to go further, to make sure that no one is left behind, by extending the programme to areas of the country that have not previously benefited from it. To this end, we launched Wave 13 last year, targeting the areas of the country with the lowest standards and the lowest capacity to improve. These are the places where opening a free school can have the greatest impact on improving outcomes.
Looking at free schools and academy trusts, off-rolling is coming in. Will we look at why that is happening? I was at the Hewett school many years ago; most of the teachers will now be dead. I do not dispute that it has changed. It was a case of it having happened there and it catching my eye because I had a personal connection. What happens when you off-roll a group of people who are seen not to be achieving and who will damage you in the league table? What structures do we have in place to make sure that that is not happening—and we are not simply dumping them?
Off-rolling is dealt with in the report by Edward Timpson which will be released quite soon—I think in the next few weeks. I will make sure that the noble Lord gets a copy of it. It certainly addresses all the issues that the noble Lord raises. One point that it makes is that academies are no more aggressive in off-rolling than anybody else in the system. I acknowledge that it is a problem. When I was running my trust, for any permanent exclusion I always said to a head teacher that they had to telephone me personally and told them, “This is a professional failure on your part”. We need to be much more rigorous, but I can assure noble Lords that the practice is widespread also among local authority schools. It is a complicated issue, because there is whole range of categories that a school can use when it shunts a child out of the door. For example, category B is sending a child home to work, although it really wants to get rid of the child. It is a very complicated area, but I will send the noble Lord the report as soon as it is available.
The application window for Wave 13 closed on 5 November. We received 124 applications. A rich collection of potential schools is proposed by a range of groups with a variety of expertise, both new providers and experienced multi-academy trusts. We are assessing those proposals and will announce the results later in the spring.
To answer the concerns raised by my noble friends Lord O’Shaughnessy and Lord Hill, we are planning a further wave, Wave 14, which will continue to put free schools into the areas of most need. Innovation remains key. I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Storey, that free schools are different because they start with a different ethos. They have the same legal basis as an academy, but having set up four myself—as I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Watson—I know that they are quite different.
A further 55 special and 14 AP free schools are in the pipeline. Last summer we launched a special and AP free schools wave. By the deadline in October we had received 65 bids from local authorities, setting out their case for why a special or AP free school would benefit their area. Early this year we will launch a competition to select trusts in the areas with the strongest case for a free school.
My noble friend Lord Polak asked about the religious designation of special schools. He is right that they cannot have a specific designation, but they can acknowledge the religious impetus behind their application by registering themselves as having a faith ethos.
Beyond this, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, raised some important general points, in particular about recognising the importance of teachers. I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and others, that that is the key to a good education. We have accepted in full the STRB’s recommendation of a 3.5% uplift in the minimum and maximum of the main pay range—one of the largest increases in 10 years. Last year we published a workload reduction toolkit, and we continue to work extensively with the unions and Ofsted to challenge and remove unhelpful practices that create this unnecessary workload. For me that is the most important issue: most teachers do not feel underpaid but do feel that they are put upon with a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy. That is one of my priorities.
We are also working with Ofsted to produce a new inspection framework. A consultation document will be issued in the next few weeks. The framework challenges the senior leadership teams, during inspections, on the workload that they are imposing on their teachers.
The noble Lord, Lord Storey, raised the issue of structures versus standards.
I welcome what the Minister says about workload, but my strong sense, gained from many people working in the field, is that the emphasis on Ofsted, and the threat that a head teacher may lose their job—and career—over a negative Ofsted report, is too harsh. We need to challenge people but also to get the balance right. I am, therefore, not completely reassured by what the Minister has just said about the framework.
The noble Earl is right in saying that in this country Ofsted seems to command more influence in the sector than happens in other countries. This is a cultural issue, and one of the first things my Secretary of State did when he arrived last year was to produce a video that showed him and the Ofsted chief inspector on a panel trying to slaughter some of the myths about inspection outcomes and so on. It is a cultural issue that we will not be able to deal with overnight. However, I accept his concern.
I am conscious that I am running out of time. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, is correct: we have cancelled some projects during the pre-opening process. In my view this demonstrates our rigour in ensuring that the quality bar is kept high. The point made by the noble Baroness about good governance is also correct. As the noble Lord, Lord Nash, said, however, 50% more free schools have achieved “outstanding” judgments than the average in the state school system—so something must be going right.
Of course, along the way not everything has gone right, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, among other noble Lords, mentioned. We have closed some 13 free schools, seven UTCs and 21 studio schools, and where failures occur we take swift and decisive action. I agree with my noble friend Lord Popat that we cannot shy away from failure and that we should address it and learn lessons from it.
I finish by quoting the motto of the academy trust of my noble friend Lord Nash: “Libertas Per Cultum”—freedom through education. Education provides the stepping-stone to improving people’s lives. Free schools play an increasing role in that work.
I thank the noble Lord for his comments. I do not want to extend the debate beyond the time allotted. Listening to it, however, is one of my PhD students who is a qualified teacher with a Cambridge degree. He is evaluating some of our work. It seems to me that we need to be evaluating not just entry to Oxford and Cambridge but the wider issue of the scientific and cultural capital of school leavers who may not go to Russell group universities such as the one where I teach. This is not a party-political thing for me—I do not go to schools as a member of the Labour Party but as someone who wants to help people have aspirations. I hope that we can persuade the Minister to say how we can look at the metrics on things that do not involve merely exam results, because education is so much more important than that. I hope that we can collaborate in that.
I would be very happy to meet the noble Lord’s PhD student if that would be helpful in pushing the discussion on. All noble Lords present, particularly on this side, got into this for no other reason than to improve the quality of educational outcomes and the lives of the less advantaged people in our society. We all share that passion. We will have vigorous debates about how it works, but I am absolutely up for learning from the mistakes we have made. Some schools have closed. We backed some of the wrong promoters in the early stages and we have learned from that and moved on. Therefore, if the work that the noble Lord’s PhD student is doing can shed any more light on how we can improve going forward, I would be delighted to be part of that.
My Lords, I have greatly enjoyed today’s debate. As always, I found myself agreeing with much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, although I struggle to accept criticism about costs—the same applies to the noble Lord, Lord Watson—bearing in mind the many examples of profligacy that we found in the education system when we took over in 2010, including the Building Schools for the Future programme, which ran, by some estimates, £10 billion over budget. People in glass houses, as the saying goes.
On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, about changes to the free schools programme, new products and new ideas evolve and change. As she said, the key is to create good schools. As she also said, perhaps the programme should evolve further to be, in some cases, more prescriptive. I agree entirely with her and my noble friend Lord Hill that sometimes we are far too focused on structures. However, I think that structures are important. As I think Tony Blair said, unless you get the structure right, you cannot move on. However, I think that the noble Baroness missed off her list of what makes a good school two very important points: what is taught and how it is taught—which leads me back to my point about prescription.
It was very good to hear from my noble friend Lord Harris. As my noble friend Lord Hill said, his role in education in this country has been truly transformational. I was very glad to hear him mention Sir Dan Moynihan, who runs the Harris Federation extremely well. He also mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, without whose help none of us involved in schools in this way could be here. I was interested to hear from my noble friend Lord Kirkham about his involvement with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the Outward Bound Trust—organisations that schools in my academy group engage with actively. Evidence from the United States is quite clear that the single most important experience for raising pupils’ confidence and self-esteem is Outward Bound trips.
It was kind of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to say what he did about staying-put arrangements for children or young people in fostering after the age of 18, because that was in fact entirely thanks to him and his perseverance. He badgered the Government endlessly on this point and that resulted in my going to see Michael Gove. This was at a time when we were trying to recover from the dreadful economic mess we had inherited, saving money wherever we could. I explained to Michael Gove why I thought this was a good idea but said that it would cost £25 million a year. However, it took him less than a minute to see the sense of it and he agreed to it. My noble friends Lord Polak and Lord Hill paid tribute to my right honourable friend Michael Gove. In this instance, he again showed that he is a truly principled politician who is also prepared to be highly action-orientated.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, referred to Imperial College’s outreach programme, which I know from personal experience does great work. I thought that his point about the importance of non-scientists understanding science was extremely well made—and I say that as someone who went through his entire education studying no biology at all.
A number of noble Lords opposite mentioned failure. Perhaps I may split the programme between free schools, pure free schools, UTCs and studio schools. In free schools there have been very few failures—although, as the Minister said, we are keen to learn from those there have been—and a great many successes. It is true that there have been many closures of UTCs and, in particular, studio schools—but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said to me when we took T-levels through your Lordships’ House, we desperately need to improve technical education in this country. That is a very difficult challenge. Successive Governments on both sides have tried and failed. We need to persevere and learn from our mistakes but stick at it.
My noble friend Lord Polak mentioned his involvement in a number of free schools. I know from personal experience that his help has been invaluable. I was very glad to hear my noble friend Lord Popat mention my noble friend Baroness Evans’s and the New Schools Network’s central and very important involvement in the free schools programme.
It was very good to see the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on such good form. I too always enjoy our contests. I was a little disappointed to hear how negative he is about the ideology of the free schools programme, including the statement that free schools have driven a coach and horses through the sensible planning of new school places. At least we have a policy on this. As my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy pointed out, the Labour Government had no policy whatever for new places, despite presiding over 13 years of uncontrolled immigration. In fact, they cut the number of places. I will forgive him for his comments, as he is a Marxist by his own admission. He invited me to read up a bit more on Marxism. I would be very grateful, in a spirit of mutual open-mindedness, if he could send me a reading list.
I greatly enjoyed today’s debate and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions.