Last week, UK prime minister David Cameron announced that if the Conservative Party is re-elected at the General Election, the free-schools programme will be expanded. Cameron has pledged a further 500 free schools, which would create 270,000 extra places within the school system, by 2020. Speaking in west London, Cameron announced that 49 more free schools have been approved. He spoke of the importance of raising school standards and providing a great education for children. He said the expansion of independent schools within the school system was integral to this process.
Free schools provide the opportunity for groups of parents, teachers, charities, existing schools or other organisations to open state-funded independent schools. They are free of interference from local authorities, and have greater freedom from central government than traditional educational institutions. The programme began in 2010. Championed by the then Tory education secretary, Michael Gove, the programme was aimed at diversifying the state-education system. Despite some teething problems at the beginning, 71 per cent of free schools are rated as either good or outstanding by the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, in comparison to 69 per cent of state schools. Research conducted by the think-tank Policy Exchange shows that free schools are driving up standards in the state-funded sector.
The programme has come under criticism from the Labour Party and shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt. Hunt claims that free schools have been a costly mistake, diverting money and resources away from areas that are in need of school places. However, according to the New Schools Network (NSN), an organisation that champions and supports those establishing or looking to establish free schools, this couldn’t be further from the truth. NSN reports that 75 per cent of mainstream free schools opened in 2013 are in areas which have a shortage of places. ‘Free schools’, it states, ‘are 10 times more likely to be located in the most deprived areas in England than in the least deprived’.
What the backlash against the free schools programme has shown is that Labour doesn’t believe in the ability of parents to make the choice about what’s best for the future of their children. Instead, it wants to impose its bland, conformist vision of education on everyone. Meanwhile, the demand for more choice has been shown by the success of free schools up and down the country.
After decades of dreary conformity in the education sector, the extension of the free-schools programme should be welcomed as an opportunity to try something new and interesting.