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Schools: Reforms — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:52 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Conservative 3:52 pm, 29th January 2015

I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Perry for initiating this debate, and I declare my interest as director of New Schools Network. As we have heard, the last five years have seen significant educational reform. I will focus my short contribution to this debate on one element: the free school programme, of which we have heard a little already. As my noble friend said, in just four years, more than 360 free schools have opened or are due to open, providing nearly 200,000 new places, once full.

Noble Lords will know that this element of the Government’s programme provides the opportunity for parents, teachers, charities, existing schools, universities and community groups to set up new schools. This opportunity has further unleashed the ambition and entrepreneurialism of those within our education sector. Two-thirds of open or approved free schools have been established by existing schools or groups of educational professionals, and are located overwhelmingly in some of our most deprived communities. Whatever the critics say, free schools are supported by thousands of teachers around the country. What is more, they cannot be set up without strong local support from parents.

Setting up a free school is rightly a rigorous process that requires tremendous commitment as well as expert educational knowledge. Torch Academy Gateway Trust and Perry Beeches Academy Trust, which run outstanding secondary schools in the Midlands—and the Harris

Federation, which we have heard spoken about so passionately—have taken advantage of the programme to replicate their successful models to ensure that more local children can take advantage of the excellent education that they already offer.

Others have used it to extend their reach, so we have seen primary schools set up secondaries and vice versa. Combined with the creation of 41 new “all-through” free schools, the programme has led to a 50% increase in the number of schools nationally that offer children a high-quality education from age of four through to 16 or 18. For others, the programme has enabled new forms of collaboration. In Slough, a group of secondary school heads have opened Ditton Park Academy to meet a local need for places, while Aspire Academy in Essex is a new alternative-provision free school opened by a number of existing schools for pupils who have traditionally struggled in mainstream education.

Opening a new school from scratch offers a unique opportunity to instil a new approach and a new idea in its DNA from day one. So we are seeing successful ideas from abroad being implemented in England for the first time. XP School in Doncaster is using an expeditionary learning model in which teaching and learning are structured in academically rigorous real-world experiences. This approach has been extremely successful in America, with evidence showing that schools using it outperform their district-equivalent schools—and now, for the first time, pupils in England are getting the chance to be taught using this model.

As well as providing opportunities for teachers, free schools have allowed those with an interest in education to get more directly involved. Football clubs such as Everton, Derby and Bolton Wanderers have set up new schools aimed expressly at re-engaging young people in education through sport. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Baker, businesses have been involved not only in UTCs but in the setting up of free schools. Discovery School in Newcastle is working with industry to develop its curriculum so that its students will be working on industrial projects as part of their learning.

However, as has already been pointed out, with any reform programme the most important question is: is it making a positive difference? While I accept that it is still early days in terms of data, I believe that the growing body of evidence suggests that the programme is delivering great new schools that are popular with parents and, importantly when public finances are under pressure, providing value for money. A 2013 National Audit Office report found that free schools are 45% cheaper than previous school building programmes.

Free schools are inspected by Ofsted during their second year of opening, so we are starting to have judgments on their performance. More than 70% of free schools that have been inspected have been rated as good or outstanding, and they have been found to be significantly more likely than other state schools to be rated as outstanding. I believe that the impact of free schools that we are seeing is one of the main reasons why all the main political parties now agree that innovative new schools should be allowed to be set up by local groups.

While the overall picture is positive, it is right to recognise that, as with any innovative idea, there is a risk that not all will succeed, as my noble friend Lord Lucas rightly pointed out. Despite the attention that they have received, fewer than 1% of free schools have been closed and fewer than 3% have been taken over due to poor performance. This compares favourably with many states in America that have charter schools. In California, which has the highest percentage of pupils educated in charter schools, 17% of those approved have since closed down. Educational reformers in America would say that the most successful states have had a firm stance on closing failing schools.

What is crucial for parents and pupils in the minority of schools where we have seen underperformance is that decisive action is taken. This has certainly happened with free schools, in contrast to the more than 100 state-maintained schools that have been in special measures for more than a year. It will be important, as more evidence comes to light, that the programme is continually evaluated to make sure that lessons can be learnt from its successes and innovations but also from the difficulties that it has faced.

Free schools are already having a positive impact on our education system and giving teachers the flexibility to innovate. Every community should be able to benefit from the programme. They are giving parents new options—69% of mainstream free schools have opened in areas where parents are least likely to get their first choice of school—and bringing new dynamism into the system.

It is vital that free schools help to meet the need for new places, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, rightly said, they can be only one part of the solution. Restricting the programme to areas where there is a places shortage limits their impact to only certain parts of the country and removes an option for the thousands of parents who can choose only between underperforming schools for their children—a situation which provides them with no choice at all.

Free schools put power back into the hands of parents, so it is only appropriate that I leave the last word to one whose child attends a free school in Cheshire. I quote:

“For the first time in 8 years my daughter looks forward to going to school, but more importantly she comes home happy with an appetite to learn”.