What should Labour be saying on free schools?

Data to be released next week looks set to reignite questions over Labour's education policy.

Data to be released next week looks set to reignite questions over Labour’s education policy

The ongoing debate over Free Schools has once again been fired up by claims of radicalisation in Birmingham. This comes hot on the heels of the government finally beginning to act to ban the teaching of creationism.

However the creation debate pans out, the general point remains – since free achools are allowed wide scope to set their own curriculum, this opens the door to education being more about what parents (or certain groups) want children to know (or what they do not want them to know), rather than what the collective would deem appropriate.

For Labour – a party of the masses – this is ideologically difficult.

There have also been broader issues that have caused rifts in the coalition parties, one being the employment of unqualified teachers. While some have argued that free schools allow for those who are great at a subject to teach it without red tape getting in the way, most see it as a lowering of standards, and a basic failure of providing education. For many, it undermines the education profession.

The facts are stark. Ofsted inspections are being failed at three times the normal rate by free schools, with a smaller percentage attaining a good or outstanding rating compared to state schools. If it was an issue of quality then the creation of free schools has been found wanting, if it is an issue of filling a gap of provision then it has also not achieved that either.

Parliamentary papers showed that in 2012 an NUT report argued that “many of the existing 24 free schools or those that are due to open later this year will have a negative impact on existing good or outstanding local schools.” Also that “NUT’s request for details of impact assessments made by the education secretary had been turned down by the DFE”

If this is true, then free schools are actually hampering state schools in areas that had been doing well. As well as this, the refusal to show the impact assessments may point to an awareness that free schools are not having a positive effect. And yet in September 2014 there will be 102 new free schools being opened, despite the events that have happened and despite public feeling.

Even before some of the more recent issues became known, public support for free schools had been dropping. In October 2013, YouGov released data that showed opposition to free schools had gone up to 47 per cent, and support for them had dropped to 27 per cent. The data also showed that, across the political spectrum, all four main parties had at least 65 per cent believing that only those that are formally qualified should be able to teach. The parties also did not drop below 56 per cent in their support for all schools following the national curriculum.

Labour needs to bear such feeling in mind. The Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University has spent the past month surveying over 400 Labour councillors in marginal constituencies ahead of the next election. This data, to be released in full next week, shows that over 50 per cent of those surveyed support scrapping free schools, or at least putting them under the control of the Local Education Authority.

Almost a third (30 per cent) would consent to their retention, but demand further regulation.

And equally, when offered a choice of a range of pledges from committing to scrap the bedroom tax to freezing energy bills, precisely zero Labour councillors plumped for the current line on free schools as the most obvious vote winner for Labour on their patch.

And it’s arguably little wonder. Labour does not yet seem to have a clear policy on free schools, other than their general disapproval of instances of obvious malpractice.

With widespread feeling amongst the public against free schools, and the same amongst Labour councillors, it would seem that taking a decisive stance against them could prove not just a vote winner, but also something that would help unite the majority of the party. The data suggests action is necessary.

Josh Younespour is a history student at Anglia Ruskin University and research assistant at the Labour History Research Unit (LHRU). He writes in a personal capacity. The LHRU will release full data from a survey of Labour councillors next week.

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14 Responses to “What should Labour be saying on free schools?”

  1. Paddy Briggs

    Our education system is so serendipitously diverse that almost any change is tinkering. From Independent Schools, through Grammar Schools, and Academies and Free Schools to Faith Schools and High Schools and Comprehensives… There is no consistency – even in curriculum. It’s a shambles. Which means that the only criterion has to be performance. Good Schools versus Bad Schools. If a Free school is a good school it would be folly to close it for ideological reasons. The reverse applies as well.

  2. swatnan

    … that Education should be free and in non-religious, non-selective state comprehensives.

  3. Leon Wolfeson

    Except things like streaming are known to hurt kids educational chances as a group.

  4. Robin Thorpe

    Where is the evidence for this? From what I have seen and understand streaming is an effective way of ensuring that every child gets taught at an appropriate level to help them be the best that they can be. Surely it is only bad if it is strictly controlled and there is no capacity to move between levels.

  5. Robin Thorpe

    The problem with Free schools (that Tristram Hunt has failed to emphasise) is that all too often occur in places where there is no pressure on school places, that the positive freedoms that they offer could have been achieved within the state system and that they have been far too expensive. The Free School policy has resulted in millions of pounds being spent on new schools where they aren’t needed and they do not offer value for money as they often start out nearly empty and could take years to fill up.
    The budgetary control and freedom to appoint could have been achieved within the state system – the total school budget is controlled by LA or EFA but each school can choose how they spend it – schools can choose to pay individuals with additional industrial experience above the pay grade attributable to their teaching experience. They could therefore take them on as trainee teacher, undertaking a SCITT or Graduate Teacher Training course, but pay them to attract good people from industry.
    Of course what many people who set-up free schools were interested in was operating outside the national curriculum, which they could anyway as an academy. Free Schools are a pointless exercise. If pushy parents want to get involved in improving the school they already can as a parent governor.
    Hunt has failed to castigate the ConDems for this farcical policy, at times on TV/Radio he has even contradicted previous statements and agreed with parents that free schools are sometimes appropriate; he did this just to appear as though he was on the side of these parents rather than explain why they are not necessary.

  6. Leon Wolfeson

    Read up on Finland’s educational system.

    It’s far more beneficial for kids to be in a situation where the brighter kids help the slower ones – the brighter kids end up with a far more thorough understanding of the material.

    The reality is there IS no movement between levels when the “levels” are school types, and people are effectively written off at 11.

  7. Mike Stallard

    Josh – the Swedish model goes something like this: IES is an organisation headed up by an Englishman CEO with an excellent team behind him. They have been allowed for over a decade to set up totally free schools and the parents have been allowed a voucher which pays for the education. If the school does not meet the parents’ expectations, then the school loses the pupils. It is, like ASDA, Tesco, Morrisons, a completely commercial proposition. Sort of like the independent schools where the Labour and Tory MPs are allowed to send their precious children.
    The Swedish schools are allowed to make a (modest) profit and they use this to build further schools. I have met most of the CEOs and the Director of Studies and they were most certainly not Tory capitalists. They had a deep concern for educating especially in the direst areas.
    In England, however, they were prevented from making a profit. They appointed an outstanding, energetic and, yes, nice, CEO too. Jodie King is a wonderful person and she knows the score.
    In steps the DfE.
    They did not once visit us. They did not once listen to our needs. Instead they placed restriction after restriction, demanded a list of priorities for admittance along with a “catchment area”. They wanted a huge document about what we planned to do and made it crystal clear that any lack of compliance would end in disaster. Instead of putting the parents in charge and offering choice, we got the DfE in charge and Ofsted making the choice.
    After keeping us waiting for months, they eventually decided that our school would not happen. Whereas we had welcomed most of the senior staff of IES and knew them all personally by their names and whereas Jodie King was a frequent visitor, Mrs Gupta and Mr Isaacs who signed the closing down letter we had never met. How do they have a clue about us?

    Under the Labour government (1997-2010), we tried for a Faith School which the Labour government offered several million pounds to support. We had the land, the enthusiastic support, the money and the backing of both the Anglican and Methodist Churches. Sorry – turned down at appeal.

    Free Schools? They are just a fraud.

  8. Leon Wolfeson

    Sweden’s model is remarkably similar to America’s overall, and has a very similar level of achievement – not really very good by international standards.

    Sweden is dialing back on free schools because of the numerous problems with them.

  9. sarntcrip


  10. Robin Thorpe

    I know about Finland’s education system and I know that they don’t differentiate within a classroom. But the schools are smaller and have a different atmosphere and attitude to learning. I agree we should take the good points from Finnish schools and their holistic attitude to learning. But we must also recognise the differences.

    In a large urban school with diverse learning needs (SEN, EAL etc) then it makes sense to stream the children. I am not talking about grammar schools here, just allowing the more able children to be stretched and the ones that need more help to have focused assistance. This can be achileved within the same school environment and in Finland is done within the same class. In the school that my son attends (recently judged as Outstanding by Ofsted) the children are in mixed ability classes for most of the day but streamed for Maths and Literacy. This is a 4 form entry urban school.

    I agree that a rigid barrier in the form of a stratified schooling system will reduce the attainment of the whole group. The top level children may do well but at the cost of the rest of the children.

  11. Leon Wolfeson

    “diverse learning needs (SEN, EAL etc)”

    Oh dear. Yea, I see where you’re coming from, as if they don’t exist in Finland.
    I’ll just ignore your views on certain types of people and keep pushing for rational reform.

  12. Robin Thorpe

    Rational reform requires evidence. I asked if you had any evidence against streaming and you referred me to an education system that operates in an entirely different way. The most significant feature of which is a focus on creativity reinforced by highly educated teachers and no formal exams. I gave you first hand experience of the benefits of streaming which you don’t even debate with just imply I have some form of prejudice because I stated that larger urban schools have a higher incidence of SEN and EAL children.

    I’m not coming from anywhere, merely stating factual observations. Finland will undoubtedly have some children with SEN and EAL but from what I understand there are fewer children with EAL and because they have a more equal society and higher quality early years care there is a smaller range of attainment on entry.
    By all means push for rational reform, but we can’t simply copy the Finnish system of education. The current English system, as Paddy Briggs states in his original comment, is too stratified to change it overnight. Finland doesn’t have private schools and they started changing their education system 30 years ago, it was a gradual process that reaped dividends 20 years after it started.

    In the current English educational environment streaming within schools is the most effective way that teacher can enable children to reach their potential.

  13. Leon Wolfeson

    Eh. If there’s a shortage of places, convert them to normal schools under LEA control.

  14. Leon Wolfeson

    I gave you evidence. You’re rejecting it. There are schools there with 50% foreign language speakers, and results are not depressed.

    Why can’t we copy their system? With out government system, it absolutely CAN be changed overnight. The only requirement is political will.

    Streaming, writing off kids, is plain wrong. No matter how you try and dress it up. And there are better alternatives, which you refuse to look at.

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