Free Schools: Educational Standards - 10 January 2019
Moved by Lord Nash
That the Grand Committee takes note of the contribution made by free schools to improving educational standards.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Nash for initiating this debate. I pay tribute to his tireless dedication to the free school project during his time as a Minister and beyond. I would also like to mention my noble friend Lady Evans, our Leader, who I had the great privilege of working with before she joined your Lordships’ House. She was instrumental in leading the New Schools Network to empower and support hundreds of free school applications to become reality. I have had the pleasure of hosting many events in Parliament on behalf of the New Schools Network, and I have great admiration for the efforts and dedication of everyone involved in bringing the free school policy to fruition, in particular, the founder of the New Schools Network, Rachel Wolf, and the honorary life president, Diana Berry, for their outstanding work and many years of exceptional commitment. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Hill for supporting the free school network when he was Education Minister.
I confess that I am not an expert on education. But I am a passionate believer in vision and aspiration. I know from my own experience that few things are as gratifying as watching the kernel of an idea grow and flourish. I also know that success is seldom instant. Hard work, commitment and careful cultivation are needed. Before you get things right, often you have to get things wrong. This is simple evolution.
Why am I saying this? Because I find it frustrating to see that free schools are so quickly dismissed or vilified by critics. We could start by remembering that the free school initiative is still very much in its infancy. In my area, Harrow, the free schools that have been set up are doing very well. Pinner High School already has a number of awards under its belt. Avanti House School was very well received by the local Hindu community, and even received a visit by Her Majesty the Queen during her Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Both schools are heavily oversubscribed and were driven by grass-roots voluntary community members. I pay particular tribute to Nitesh Gor, who founded the Avanti Schools Trust. I am delighted that his services to education were recognised when he was awarded an OBE last year.
Many free school projects are funded by philanthropists such as my noble friend Lord Harris, which helps reduce the burden on taxpayers. Nationally, the story has also been encouraging. It is not perfect, but it is going in the right direction.
I was looking at the data released by the Department for Education about the Progress 8 metric, which measures progress in relation to prior attainment. According to this, free school students scored a quarter of a grade higher than children with similar starting points across the country.
I say this to the critics of free schools: many free schools are already producing excellent exam results, as we heard earlier from my noble friend Lord Nash. Many are in areas that could hardly be described as affluent. Taken as a whole, secondary free schools cater to an above-average number of disadvantaged students, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, mentioned earlier. Many cater for ethnic minorities and even children of asylum seekers. All of this demonstrates that free schools are not the exclusive preserve of a privileged few but are inclusive of any community that wants to take them up. Any argument to the contrary is not only simplistic but insulting. It suggests that poverty and aspiration do not go together, that only the affluent can afford to be ambitious and that any attempts to challenge the status quo are futile. That flies in the face of everything we claim to stand for in this country, and we would do well to keep that in mind when we debate topics of this nature.
Of course, there is a flip side. A number of free schools have not taken off despite extensive planning and investment. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, mentioned 50 that were opened and subsequently failed. Taken in isolation, people may say this demonstrates that the free school project is flawed, that it does not work. But this brings me back to the point about allowing time, space and tolerance for a policy to find its way. We should see the bigger picture. For every free school that has been judged to have failed, more have succeeded. For every mistake we have made, lessons were learned. As a society we have become impatient. We expect every social ailment to be cured quickly and precisely, without fault or friction. But that is not life. That is not reality. Free schools are a creative response to systemic failure.
Successive Governments have tried and failed to solve the challenges facing our education system, for which there are many reasons. It is not the fault of one Government, political party or ideology. It is much deeper and more complex, and the changing world around us makes it even more so. We are at a dramatic crossroads for our country where the whole world is moving forward at a pace previously unimagined. The digital age is revolutionising economies, rewriting the job market and reshaping the skills we will need. No one can predict what the market will look like in 20 years. Education, like the future, needs to be fluid. From what I have seen, free schools are helping to bridge the gaps not only in skills but in the very essence of our thinking. It is not just about grades, it is about learning. It is not about following formulas but about finding fresh approaches. In the words of the head teacher of Pinner High School,
“we are not adapting to the future, we are creating it”.
Long may this continue.