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Andrew Adonis’s argument in the New Statesman last month that Labour should embrace free schools is selective, outdated and, in part, simply wrong.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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.