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Andrew Adonis’s argument in the New Statesman last month that Labour should embrace free schools is selective, outdated and, in part, simply wrong.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. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496