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Andrew Adonis’s argument in the New Statesman last month that Labour should embrace free schools is selective, outdated and, in part, simply wrong.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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Inside the Momentum rally: meet the Jeremy Corbyn supporters challenging Labour’s rebel MPs

The Labour leader's followers had been waiting a long time for him to come along. 

Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party is at stake. As the news filters through the party’s branches, hundreds of thousands sign petitions in his support. But this is no online craze. By evening, thousands of diehard fans have gathered in Parliament Square, where they shout “Ed, Ed, Ed,” to the beat of a drum. Many swear Ed was the only thing keeping them in the Labour Party. They can’t imagine supporting it without him.

Am I stretching your credibility? Even a Milifan would be hard pressed to imagine such a scene. But this is precisely Labour’s problem. Only Jeremy Corbyn can command this kind of passion.

As the Shadow Cabinet MPs began to resign on Sunday, Momentum activists sprang into action. The rally outside Parliament on Monday evening  was organised with only 24 hours notice. The organisers said 4,000 were there. It certainly felt to me like a thousand or more were crammed into the square, and it took a long time to push through to the front of the crowd. 

In contrast to the whispered corridor conversations happening across the road, the Corbyn fans were noisy. Not only did they chant Jeremy’s name, they booed any mention of the Parliamentary Labour Party and waved signs denouncing rebel MPs as “scabs”. Other posters had a whiff of the cult about them. One declared: “We love Jeremy Corbyn”. Many had the t-shirt. 

“Jeremy Corbyn brought me back into the Labour Party,” Mike Jackson, one of the t-shirt wearers, told me. He had voted Remain, but he didn’t care that the majority of the Shadow Cabinet had resigned. “He’s got a new Shadow Cabinet. It’s more diverse, there are working class voices at last, there are women, the BME community. It is exactly how it should be.” Another man simply told me: “I am here for Corbyn.”

The crowd was diverse, but in the way a university campus is diverse, not a London street or school playground. They shouted angry slogans, then moved aside obligingly for me to pass through. Jack, a young actor who did not want to give his full name, told me: “I used to vote Green. I am joining Labour because of Jeremy Corbyn. I like the guy. He listens. I have seen friends frustrated with him, but I really think he can do it.”

Syada Fatima Dastagir, a student, has supported Labour for years - “Old Labour”. She thought Corbyn would survive the coup: “I voted Green and Plaid Cymru, because I didn’t think Labour supported its roots. This has brought Labour back to its roots.”

This belief that Jezza will overcome was present everywhere in the crowd. When I asked Momentum organiser Sophie Nazemi if she thought Corbyn would go, she replied: “He won’t.”

She continued: “It is important that we demonstrate that if there is a leadership election, Jeremy will win again. It will be three months of distraction we don’t need when there is likely to be an election this year.”

Instead of turning on Corbyn, Labour should be focused on campaigning for better local housing stock and investment in post-industrial towns, she said. 

Whatever happens, she said Momentum would continue to build its grassroots organisation: “This is more than just about Jeremy, whilst Jeremy is our leader.”

As I moved off through the chanting crowds, I remembered bumping into Corbyn at an anti-austerity march just a year ago. Although he had thrown his hat into the ring for Labour leadership, he was on his own, anonymous to most of the passers by. In the year that has passed, he has become the figurehead of an unlikely cult.

Nevertheless, it was also clear from the people I spoke to that they have been waiting ages for him to come along. In other words, they chose their messiah. The PLP may try to bury him. But if these activists have their way, he’ll rise again.