The motion was presented by Greg Hands, the Conservative MP for Chelsea and Fulham. It was great to see the successes of the free school policy highlighted early on, with the MP stating “only 68% of state-funded schools were good or outstanding in 2010, that jumped to 89% at the end of August 2017.” He pointed out that high performing schools in Kensington and Chelsea demonstrated the benefits that free schools and academies bring to the system, but also acknowledged where the policy has faced difficulty, such as problems around finding a suitable site. He also expressed his frustration with the Hammersmith and Fulham Council for the lack of quality secondary school places.
Politicians from all sides then debated the successes and failures of individual schools (free, local authority or otherwise). One key piece of information came from Mike Kane, the Labour MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, who confirmed Labour’s proposed education reforms would not result in the closure of any schools, or the cancellation of any pipeline schools.
He also wanted power to be returned to communities, with parents and teachers able to run their own schools, and local authorities allowed to take on schools when no other sponsor could be found. He claimed that not allowing this to happen has resulted in academies and free schools opening in areas with little or no demand for places.
The Minister for School Standards, the Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, defended the academies programme, using evidence from the OECD which shows high-performing education systems have professional autonomy and very strong accountability, and that “the accountability system for academies is stronger than it has ever been”. He then corrected Mike Kane, explaining the statistics on free school closures used earlier were incorrect; the correct number is “41 free schools, UTCs and studio schools”.
As part of this correction, Mr Gibb clarified that the 23 schools from the Wakefield City Academies Trust, which Mr Kane had understood to have closed, were actually rebrokered to other schools. The Minister went on to explain that the academies programme has been designed to ensure that underperforming schools do not remain in special measures for years. He also stated that his party will not change the law that requires schools to become academies once they go into special measures as it has facilitated school improvement.
Finally, the debate moved onto social mobility and educating disadvantaged pupils. This was an opportunity for Mr Gibb to highlight that free schools have improved outcomes for disadvantaged pupils and used the example of progress scores for disadvantaged pupils at Dixons Trinity Academy. He also pointed out that the free school programme is designed to focus on areas of disadvantage that have been poorly served by the school system in the past.
Greg Hands then concluded the debate by reiterating the central purpose of the free school and academies policies – to drive school improvement through empowering teachers and headteachers. He raised the risk of not having enough school places in the future, and implored the Labour Party to reconsider their “ideological approach to ending the programme”.