Right to reply: free schools are not divisive

There is no evidence that free schools will damage their neighbours.

I was slightly disappointed that Lisa Nandy saw fit to attack the West London Free School in the course of making her case against free schools in general. One of the courtesies that both sides of this argument generally observe is not to single out individual schools for criticism.

She claimed that the proportion of children on Free School Meals at the WLFS is 23%, compared to an average of 32% at the five neighbouring schools. I don't know how she’s defining "neighbouring schools", but the five closest schools to the West London Free School as the crow flies are Godolphin & Latymer, Ravenscourt Prep, Latymer Upper, Sacred Heart and Flora Gardens. Since the first three of these are independent schools and the proportion of children on FSM at Sacred heart is 7%, I can assure her the average proportion of children on FSM across all five is not 32%.

The proportion on FSM at the WLFS is, in fact, 23.5% – slightly lower than the borough average for state secondary schools, admittedly, but considerably higher than three of the borough's state secondary schools, all of which are maintained schools. But so what? One of the arguments for free schools is that they'll appeal to parents who would otherwise send their children to fee-paying schools, thereby reducing the amount of educational apartheid in England and increasing the number of genuinely comprehensive schools.

The true test, it seems to me, is how reflective the school's intake is of the borough as a whole, not just those people in the borough who currently send their children of secondary school age to state schools. And on that basis, we pass with flying colours. Amazingly, the proportion of households in the Hammersmith Broadway ward, where the WLFS is located, where the annual household income is < £16,500 is 23.5% – exactly the same as the percentage of children at the school on FSM.

In order to make the argument Lisa Nandy’s making, i.e. that the opening of a new free school has an adverse impact on the neighbouring maintained schools, she’d need to show that the percentage of children on FSM at the neighbouring schools increased as a result of the free school opening (not the same thing as showing that the percentage of children on FSM at the free school in question is below the borough average) *and* that the academic performance of pupils at the neighbouring school suffered as a result.  Is there any evidence to support these assertions? I mean, apart from a single quotation from an unnamed minister in a far away country which has a completely different education system to ours?

The best point of comparison we have, I think, is with Labour's city academies programme – and I note that in the past Lisa has been as opposed to academies as she is to free schools. According to the most exhaustive research study carried out to date into the impact of Labour's city academy programme (Machin and Vernoit, 2011), while it's true that academies tend to attract a more affluent cohort of pupils than neighbouring schools, and this does indeed have a negative impact on the "quality" of pupils at those schools, educational attainment at the neighbouring schools *actually improves* as a result of an academy opening next door. Here's the key passage from pp.43-44 of Machin and Vernoit’s paper: "Table 13 shows that it is possible for neighbouring schools to experience significant improvements in their KS4 performance despite the reduction in the ‘quality’ of their pupil intake. That is, the beneficial performance effects, which stem from increased choice/competition and also from the sharing of the academy school facilities (and expertise) with the wider community (Curtis 2008), seem to outweigh the detrimental effects, which stem from the increased pupil intake quality in academy schools (and the corresponding reduction in the pupil-intake quality in the neighbouring schools) and also from a teacher recruitment policy in academies that targets some of the most talented teachers in their neighbouring schools."

Of course, Lisa Nandy makes other objections to free schools that are ideological and don't purport to be evidence-based – they aren't as “locally accountable”, for instance, though I'm not sure what redress there is at present for dissatisfied parents in boroughs where there's never any change in control.

But if Lisa’s main concern is that free schools (and academies) will have a negative impact on the academic performance of children at neighbouring schools, there's no evidence to support that worry and plenty of evidence to suggest it's baseless. If Lisa’s objective (like mine) is to drive up standards across the piece, Machin and Vernoit's research suggests that "increased choice/competition" is the way to go.

On the cost point, even if we take Lisa’s most pessimistic estimate, i.e. that the total capital cost of the first 24 free schools is £130m, that's still less than it cost to deliver new schools under the last government. The average cost of building a new school or refurbishing an existing one under the Building Schools for the Future programme was approximately £28m. That compares to an average free school cost of £5.42m according to Lisa’s own figures.

Finally, Lisa claims that the WLFS receives, on average, £12,416 per pupil. If only! We receive exactly the same per pupil revenue funding as the neighbouring maintained schools, i.e. between £6,500 and £7,000 per pupil.

As a Conservative, I take no pleasure in pointing any of this out because it would clearly be in my party's interest if Labour went into the next general election pledging to dismantle free schools. But I don't think Ed Miliband (or, more likely, Yvette Cooper) is quite that suicidal. All the evidence points to the fact that free schools will (a) reduce educational apartheid; (b) have a positive impact on the academic performance of both their own pupils and the pupils at neighbouring schools; (c) are a more cost effective way of providing much needed additional school places than the method devised by the last government; and (d) cost the taxpayer no more in terms of revenue funding than maintained schools.

Toby Young is the co-founder of the West London Free School and a columnist for the Sun on Sunday.

Pupils wait for school buses in the playground at the West London Free School. Photograph: Getty Images.

Toby Young is the co-founder of the West London Free School and a columnist for the Sun on Sunday and the Spectator.

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The next mayor must tackle what’s making London miserable for too many

London in 2016 risks losing much of what makes it such a diverse, vital and multi-layered place to the sterilising forces of polarised wealth and misguided policy.

Since Londoners last went to the polls to elect a Mayor in 2012, the city has continued to polarise.

While bankers’ bonuses and foreign inflows of capital have kept the plushest bars and restaurants busy, during Boris Johnson’s tenure, London’s levels of inequality have risen, with latest figures suggesting 27 per cent of Londoners live in poverty.

The next mayor will preside over a truly global city – but whether it’s Sadiq Khan or Zac Goldsmith, bold action must be taken so that all Londoners can benefit from the city’s success and it doesn’t just become a playground for the super-rich, socially cleansed of the millions of ordinary workers who keep it running.

In recent years, my research on prosperity has taken me around the world – from Kenya to Thailand – but some of the most interesting findings have come from our own doorstep in East London. A research team from UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP), working closely with local citizen scientists, spent four months across three sites in Hackney Wick, East Village (the former Olympic athletes’ village) and Stratford, gathering experiences of what prosperity really means to local people.

These areas are in the shadow of the Olympic Park, Boris Johnson’s biggest legacy – and on the front line of London’s gentrification. What came to the fore were a range of shared sentiments: fears of being priced out, crushing house prices and escalating rents, fear of crime, deprivation and a lack of job opportunities.

In the ostensibly wealthy East Village, for instance, one resident told us: “If prosperity is living in a great place, having a fantastic school and great quality of life then I am prosperous. But it’s a struggle to hold on to this, to pay for it”.

That feeling of clinging on by the fingernails is a sentiment many Londoners will recognise.

While complaints about gentrification aren’t new, the phenomenon’s worsening impact was highlighted recently by the Runnymede Trust which pointed to the growing levels of overcrowding particularly among ethnic minorities.

This was an issue that came up in our research too. One Stratford resident told us about Victorian-style conditions in their local area: “I know some people are living in very difficult situations, with lots of people living in one house because they can’t afford to rent or buy. So maybe ten to fifteen people living in a three-bedroom house.”

Sadiq Khan has called the housing crisis the single biggest barrier to prosperity, growth and fairness facing Londoners today”.  That may be true, but we need to stop looking at single issues and take a broader view of the factors that create  - and undermine - prosperity.

While we can look at broad indicators such as personal wealth, housing prices or unemployment, there is currently no way of measuring people's true prosperity – a nuanced and subjective concept that’s very personal.

An urgent priority for the next Mayor should be to commission a report on the whole of London so we can understand the issues in more detail. This shouldn’t just be a 21st-century version of Charles Booth’s famous map of red and blue streets, however. It needs to talk directly to Londoners about their experiences of being part of today’s capital – and ‘crowdsource’ some suggested solutions.

At the IGP, we’ve developed a model of 17 indicators for measuring prosperity covering social, economic, cultural and political life, which are often viewed in isolation. Our measures include the things that people really value in their lives, such as their sense of community or having the quality time to pursue their aspirations.

One area that this extends to is the natural environment and how we interact with it. Since air quality, water, waste and climate change all come under the mayor's remit, green issues have been high on the agenda in this election; Khan has outlined his plans to make London “a zero-carbon city”, while Goldsmith has pledged to create 200 new parks for London.

But I’d suggest that a more effective policy for a prosperous London would be to establish it as a National Park City, an idea that’s been gaining traction in recent years.

This plan recognises that Greater London already has lots of green space – it makes up almost 50% of the land area – that isn’t used effectively. But it goes deeper than that: a national park, just like Dartmoor or the Lake District, is also about preserving a unique social and economic environment as well as a natural one.

London in 2016 risks losing much of what makes it such a diverse, vital and multi-layered place to the sterilising forces of polarised wealth and misguided policy.

Although the political spotlight has shone on the EU Referendum so far this year, the Mayoral race still holds great significance for London’s 8.6 million residents.

We need the next Mayor to make a bold start to his tenure by doing what he can within the powers available to make a real positive difference to the prosperity of London, focused on the real lives of Londoners.

Professor Henrietta Moore is Director of UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity