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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Single parent families are already struggling - universal credit is making things worse

Austerity and financial hardship are not inevitable – politicians have a choice.

“I don’t live, I merely keep existing”. So says one single parent in Gingerbread’s final report from a project tracking single parent finances since 2013. Their experience is typical of single parents across the country. The majority we surveyed are struggling financially and three-quarters have had to borrow from friends, family or lenders to make ends meet.

This is not the story that the government wants to hear. With a focus on a jobs boom and a promise to "make work pay", a relentlessly positive outlook shines from the DWP. The reality is somewhat different. Benefit cuts have taken their toll, and single parents have been among the hardest hit. Estimates suggest over six per cent of their annual income was lost through reforms under the 2010-15 government. The 2015 Summer Budget cuts will add another 7.6 per cent loss on top by 2020, even after wage and tax gains.

What’s more, for all the talk of tackling worklessness, working families have not escaped unscathed. Single parent employment is at a record high – thanks in no small part to their own tenacity in a tough environment. But the squeeze on incomes has hit those in work too. The original one per cent cap on uprating benefits meant a single parent working part-time lost around £900 over three years. Benefits are now frozen, rapidly losing value as inflation rises. On top of stagnant and often low pay and high living costs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we found working single parents surveyed just as likely to run out of money as those out of work – shockingly, around half didn’t have enough to reach the end of the month.

Single parent families – along with many others on low incomes – are being pushed into precarious financial positions. One in eight single parents had turned to emergency provision, including payday lenders and food banks. Debt in particular casts a long shadow over families. A third of single parents surveyed were behind on payments, and they described how debt often lingers for a long time as they struggle to pay it off from already stretched budgets.

All of this may be depressingly familiar to some – but it comes at something of a crossroads for politicians. With the accelerated roll-out of universal credit around the corner, the government risks putting many more people under significant strain – and potentially into debt. Encouragingly, the increasing noise around the delays to a first payment is raising red flags across political parties. Perhaps most alarming is that delays are not purely administrative, but deliberate – they reflect in-built, intentional, cost-saving measures. These choices serve no constructive purpose: they risk debt and anxiety for families the government intended to help, and costs for the services left to pick up the pieces.

But will the recent warning signs be enough? Despite new data showing around half of new claimants needed "advance payments" (loans to deal with financial hardship while waiting for a first payment), the Department for Work and Pensions stuck doggedly to its lines, lauding the universal credit project that “lies at the heart of welfare reform to help “people to improve their lives”.

And, as valuable as additional scrutiny is, must we wait for committees to gather and report on yet more evidence, and for the National Audit Office to forensically examine and report on progress once again? The reality is glaringly evident. Families have already been pushed to the brink without universal credit. Those entering the new system – and those supporting them, including councils – have made it abundantly clear that moving onto universal credit makes things worse for too many.

This is not to dismiss universal credit in its entirety. It’s hard to argue with the original intention to simplify the benefit system and make sure work pays. It was always going to be an ambitious (possibly over-ambitious) project. But salami slicing the promised support – from the added seven day "waiting period" for a first payment, to the slashed work allowances intended to herald improved work incentives – leaves us with a system that won’t merely overpromise and under-deliver, but endanger many families’ already fragile financial security. The impact should not be underestimated – this is not just about finances, but families’ lives and the emotional stress and turmoil that can follow.

With increasing political and economic uncertainty, with Brexit looming, this is not the time for petty leadership squabbles, but a time to reassure voters and revitalise the government’s promises to the nation. The DWP committed to a "test and learn" approach to rolling out universal credit – to pause and fix these urgent problems is no U-turn. And of course, the Prime Minister promised a transformed social justice agenda, tackling the "burning injustices" of the day. Nearly all of the UK’s 2 million single parent families will be eligible for universal credit once it is fully rolled out; making this flagship support fit for purpose would surely be a good place to start.

Sumi Rabindrakumar is a research officer at single parents charity Gingerbread.