Why Labour should not embrace free schools

Andrew Adonis is wrong to argue that free schools do not favour the better off.

Andrew Adonis’s argument in the New Statesman last month that Labour should embrace free schools is selective, outdated and, in part, simply wrong.

In reality, free schools do not have the comprehensive and inclusive intake he claims. The catchment areas of the first 24 free schools tend to favour the better off, and consequently are populated by "middle class suburban people” according to research by the market analysts CACI. All of them take fewer children on free school meals than surrounding schools. At the West London Free School, for example, 23 per cent of pupils are eligible for free lunches, compared with 32 per cent in the five neighboring schools.

This is not an accident – it is inherent in the free schools model. The pattern has also emerged in Sweden, which pioneered free schools, where evidence suggests that free schools increase social segregation because they are, according to the Swedish Education Minister “generally attended by children of better educated and wealthy families making things even more difficult for children attending ordinary schools in poor areas.”

This backdoor selection is sanctioned by the Secretary of State, who says free schools must adhere to the admissions code, but allows "agreed variations", which have only been made public in response to freedom of information requests.

The problem with focusing only on free schools, as Adonis has done, is that schools are not islands. Tony Blair said a school “belonged to itself, for itself.” But schools are part of their community and what happens in one has an impact on children in another. Adonis ignores the enormous impact free schools have on other children, based on a model of surplus places, where good schools flourish and expand while others wither and die. This is great news for children, unless you happen to be stuck in a school with spare places and reduced funding while it is allowed to wither on the grapevine.

Similarly, the amount spent on free schools cannot fail to impact on other children. The amount spent per pupil in the first free schools is well above average, in part because the schools are smaller and because they are running at reduced capacity for the first few years. The West London Free School, for example, received £12,416 per pupil in its first year, compared to an average of £7,064. In addition, the set up costs are huge. The first round of capital funding amounted to £50 million which included £14 million for just one school building. Total capital costs for just the first 24 schools will range from £100-£130 million whilst nearly 100 civil servants are working on the free schools initiative in Whitehall. At a time when other schools are facing a real terms cut to their budgets over the next 3 years this seems shockingly unfair.

Adonis rightfully acknowledges the importance of teachers, as most politicians do, but is anyone actually listening to them? He argues for more centrally driven change, but visit any classroom across the country and teachers will tell you they are sick and tired of central reform.

The international evidence is clear, that autonomy and accountability work. But that points us away from Michael Gove’s free schools model which has taken away local accountability in the form of the local authority and centralised power in the hands of the Secretary of State.

We should be handing more power to teachers, not to Gove, increasing, not reducing local accountability and improving collaboration, not competition for places, so that children – particularly the most disadvantaged - are not left behind.

In practice this would mean teachers having more flexibility to decide what, how and when they teach. They might, for example, choose to teach by ability not year groups, and other forms of innovation that should be possible in any school, regardless of structure. It should be coupled with investment in lifelong learning and serious thinking about what happens to children outside the classroom, which matters above all to the children who most need our help.

Adonis looks to Singapore for lessons, but on a select committee visit to the country this year, ministers told us they were keen to learn from Britain about how to better equip their children for life and for the workforce. Similarly, Finland, which we visited last year, succeeds because of the status, pay and conditions of teachers, yet free schools can use unqualified teachers and are not required to adhere to national pay and conditions agreements. Michael Wilshaw, who Adonis cites as a champion of this model, was critical of the use of unqualified teachers at a recent appearance before the education select committee.

Adonis seems to have bought into Gove’s vision – that introducing competition, taking away "bureaucracy" and pursuing a relentless academic vision allows the brightest young people to do well, regardless of background. Gove ignores - and indeed has removed help for - the enormous practical barriers that exist for those children.

Free schools are part of that vision. To paraphrase Andy Burnham, it’s a vision for some children, and some schools, not all children and all schools. Labour can do better than that.

Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan.

Read Toby Young's response: "Free schools are not divisive".

Mayor of London Boris Johnson with author Toby Young and Headteacher Thomas Packer at the opening of the West London Free School. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan, and Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.