As another year of party conferences draws to a close, the education sector is recovering from a relentless bashing in the bullring of debate.
While the Conservatives spoke of renewal for funding, free schools and further education, Labour announced a raft of policies, including pledges to abolish private schools, dismantle Ofsted, and end the free school programme.
The national success of free schools is undeniable: they are the highest performing type of state school at Key Stages One, Four and Five and are more likely to be rated Outstanding. But by focusing solely on the numbers, we risk diluting the emotional argument. As supporters of the free school programme, we should be making a stronger case for the benefits of free schools and their empowerment of communities. Free schools, by their very nature, are successful because they are led by communities galvanised by a desire to do what is best for young people in their area. In fact, the very essence of their success stems from the freedom to respond to the intricate and differential needs of local communities that cannot be captured in standard performance data. As unique grassroots movements, they combine expertise with the interests of local stakeholders to create precise reflections of the communities that they serve.
In Plymouth, Marine Academy Primary was opened by the community to close the attainment gap through a curriculum reflective of the local area. Since opening they surpassed local authority averages at Key Stage 2 and built a curriculum around the nautical heritage of the city to help pupils connect with its past and build for its future. In Newham, London Academy of Excellence has addressed low standards in the borough and, since opening seven years ago, has sent more children to Oxford and Cambridge than surrounding schools ever had before, delivering results to rival those of the top independent schools.
The development of the free school programme has ushered in an era of “what works?” and individual communities are at the forefront of answering that question. Nevertheless, it would be complacent to suggest that free schools, as with other school types, do not provide us with lessons to be learnt.
Cultivating an open dialogue that celebrates the successes of free schools in tackling local issues, while also acknowledging key areas of development for the policy, is paramount to addressing the imbalance of political ownership. If free schools are to be seen by both sides of the political spectrum as truly innovative and the local level solution to educational underperformance, then we must do more to consult across that spectrum. Proponents of free schools should be focussed on encouraging an open and critical discussion that puts the right of every child to attend a good school at its heart and we should be appealing to sceptics to help us scale up what is working well. Only then will we see the very best of these schools.
If all sides can agree on something, it should be that schools should exist a way that most benefits the local community. Whether that is schools that are set up with the purpose of addressing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers - such as Dixons Trinity Academy where disadvantaged pupils are now outperforming their peers - or schools that can go beyond the confines of the national curriculum to inspire the interests of all young people.
School 21 and XP School have paved the way in offering project-based learning and have delivered outstanding results, while free schools like Michaela Community School and Bedford Free School have driven standards up in struggling areas by providing a traditional academic education. Moreover, thousands of children are benefitting from the raft of special and alternative provision free schools that have opened specifically to ensure our most vulnerable are receiving support that has, in many areas, been lacking.
In many communities throughout the country, free schools have been able to offer parents and young people a choice that would never previously have been available to them. We know free schools work – the statistics show us that. More importantly, the stories of the families who have been able to benefit from something different, something better, tell us why the programme must continue.