1. Education reform at the heart of the next Government
There are over 400 open free schools and over 250 more in the pipeline, yet there are ninety local authorities in England which do not have an open free school. Although they only make up a small proportion of the total number of secondary schools, four of the top 10 highest performers at Key Stage 4 are free schools.
Over half of our children are now in academies or free schools, but there are still 93 unsponsored schools of which 31 have been orphaned for at least 12 months. Last year 42% schools inspected by Ofsted were either Requires Improvement or Inadequate.
The next Conservative Party leader must commit to putting education reform at the front and centre of policy debate. This means:
- a free school in every local authority, so all parents can access the high quality education they provide;
- Restoring financial incentives for the best schools to become academies so that they can sponsor and support struggling schools.
2. 100 new free schools each year
Free schools are the highest performing schools in Key Stages, 1, 4 and 5, and are more likely to be rated as Outstanding than any other type of school. Where they exist, they are transforming the lives of pupils that attend them, offering genuine parental choice and innovation to improve outcomes for children in England.
However, this success is too concentrated in narrow pockets across the country because too few free schools have been approved in our most disadvantaged communities. Every parent has the right to send their child to a good school. Building 100 new free schools a year will help to deliver this, particularly in those communities that we know feel they have been left behind. Building new schools shouldn’t just be about meeting basic need for new school places, but ensuring every child has a good school place. That is the only way we will tackle chronic underperformance and spread educational excellence. 3. Removing the barriers to opening new schools.
One of the biggest barriers to opening new free schools are the barriers to finding a suitable site. In some cases, developers are not doing enough to support new schools, and in other cases local authorities have been actively hostile.
Instead of an antagonistic approach to new schools, the next Government must ensure local authorities work closely with free schools to help secure sites. The Government should legislate for new powers that will enable them to compel local authorities to set aside land for new free schools. The Government should also be providing funding for schools that are part of housing developments to be built in advance of contributions from developers being paid, to bridge the gap between places being required and funding being available.
4. A new wave of community led academy trusts
Academy trusts are not, and should not ossify into, new local authorities. No single trust, school or person should have a monopoly on education. The benefits of the academies programme are that it hands the power to educate our children to parents and communities who know their needs best. This offers them the freedom to innovate and drive real improvement in our education system.
However, there is a risk the system becomes dominated by a few big regional players. New community-led free schools are not able to enter the sector because the process has become onerous and bureaucratic. Where free schools already exist, they are not always able to expand and spread excellence because competitions to run and open new schools seem rigged in favour of more established players. 27% of free schools are single-academy trusts yet they are not able to push what works because of a bias towards large academy trust growth.
The next Conservative Party leader must commit to ensuring that we cultivate entrepreneurship in the education sector. This means:
- re-empowering parents, teachers, and community charities to open a free school and establish a new single academy trust;
- Encouraging innovation in the schools system, by placing this at the heart of the free school process;
- Support for existing single academies to grow and share their Outstanding practice.
5. Investment in provision for pupils at risk of gang violence
The next Conservative Party leader must invest in delivering more AP free schools and a fairer funding settlement for those schools. This is an integral part of preventing vulnerable children falling out of education and into the hands of gangs.