Labour’s views are based on a reality that has long dissolved; free schools are no longer for white middle-class parents in areas where they are not wanted

It’s nearing the end of the general election campaign and time to get down to the detail in education policies. But there’s one thing we know for certain: the parties differ in their view on free schools.

The Conservatives have said they will continue. Tristram Hunt has damned them and says that Labour will stop them.

Mr Hunt retreads his opposition to free schools having (some) unqualified teachers and alleges, yet again, that free schools are exclusively for white middle-class families in areas where they are not needed – to the detriment of local schools.

It’s a view that is behind the times.

True, in the 2010/11 round of the first free schools, some were opened by white parents wanting to avoid sending their children to mixed, multi-ethnic schools. True also, in those early rounds, that free schools opened in opposition to other local schools where the places were not needed. Indeed, in one northern local authority, the opening of two free schools in a small area killed advanced academy sponsorship plans actively supported by the Department for Education.

But ‘twas always thus. New government initiatives, especially those of a new government, always follow a scattergun approach at the start, only to settle down as time passes.

The early free schools did not, nonetheless, throw up hoards of extremist faith schools. Many stuck to the National Pay and Conditions of Teachers ­– to the extent that Lord Hill, the then schools minister, warned prospective promoters that unless they put forward more innovative proposals, they would not be successful.

The critical difference was that the glass palaces model of Building Schools for the Future was well and truly shattered by the popularity of free schools opening in adventurous, non-standard settings.

The picture, however, has radically changed (and I write as a consultant for two successful 2015 openers). Free schools are no longer encouraged unless they supply a locally identified need for places, particularly at primary level. The support of at least the local if not also the neighbouring local authorities is strongly encouraged (authorities still don’t have a veto on free school proposals, though).

The free school route is now the only one open to independent fee-paying schools wanting to come into the state sector. Before they open they are scrutinised at a far higher level than before, particularly around safeguarding and curriculum offer. Such scrutiny is to be welcomed.

The closure of unsuccessful free schools remains controversial. Opponents cite the closure of three free schools as a failure of the policy. Others see it as a market-related, education-based reality, not uncommon in the US and in parts of Canada that have similar types of schools. The fact remains that some local authorities have kept open historically under-achieving and even failing schools for many years after they would have been better shut. Perhaps here, as elsewhere, free schools are paving the way for a very different future?

What may be worth doing, though, is asking candidates knocking on the door in the next few weeks the following questions about free schools. It should give you an idea of what they are thinking and whether it aligns with your beliefs.

1. Are free schools a good solution to the acknowledged need for significantly more primary places throughout the country?

2. Do high-performing free schools help to drag up standards in neighbouring schools?

3. Is it right to plan a high-performing free school in the knowledge that it may bring about the closure of a long-standing, low-performing neighbouring school?

4. Is a specific acceptance that some free schools will fail to establish themselves and quickly have to close acceptable?

5. Does the introduction of free schools really lead to more choice for parents?

6. What can be done to make free schools genuinely more diverse and different?



Bruce Liddington is an education consultant specialising in academies and free schools

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  1. John Fowler

    Curious that someone who has been Schools Commissioner does not know that an independent school can still enter the local authority maintained system (section 11, Education and Inspections Act 2006). The specific consent of the Secretary of State is not required. But then the doorstep questions are loaded against someone who seeks a well-planned coherent and consistent school system which maximises parental choice and pupils attainment.