Free schools: taking the state out of the school

This guest blog is written by Bethany Wright, a teacher of English Literature and Divinities at the West London Free School.

When the coalition government entered office in 2010, they found an education system in free fall. Standards had slipped and the UK was falling down international league tables, it was clear that radical action was needed.

Of the major reforms that were implemented over the next few years, free schools would prove a central part. A typical state school is controlled by and funded through local authorities, and must follow the national curriculum. Free schools conversely are funded directly by the government but are independently ran by individuals or a non-profit organisation, such as the Knowledge Schools Trust. Most importantly free schools set their own curriculum and school hours, giving teachers more freedom, breaking with the state school status quo and introducing much needed competition into education.

These ideas were successfully championed by then-secretary of state for education Michael Gove and his advisors, such as Dominic Cummings. They wanted to create an education system wherein greater freedom for schools would lead to innovation, and ultimately improved education outcomes for all children, not just those privileged few attending public schools.

Of course, granting schools greater autonomy could not be done en masse, and so the creation of more free schools has been steady, allowing trailblazers such as the West London Free School and the Michaela Community School to lead the way for others to follow.

Neither school has wasted their hard-won autonomy and have been bold in pushing the boundaries of not just teaching, but of how to run a school more broadly. At Michaela for example, discipline is paramount. The corridors are silent and antics are strictly confined to the playground. In the classroom meanwhile, pupils are taught through rote-learning techniques.

If this sounds much different from a typical school, that’s precisely the point. Free schools have had the greatest impact where the old-fashioned state school system was letting pupils down. By being innovative and possessing a heartfelt desire to help pupils, free schools have provided extremely deprived catchment areas with top quality educations. This means pupils from the poorest areas can be equipped to compete with the best educated in the country.

And you don’t have to take my word for it, the numbers speak for themselves. According to the Centre for Policy Studies, primary free schools have the best Key Stage 1 results of any type of school. Secondary free schools meanwhile follow only converter academies when it comes to Attainment 8 scores, and sixth-form free schools receive better A-level results than any other school type.

It is no coincidence that public schools tend to out-perform state schools on near enough every level. Children from public schools go on to pick up the highest paying and most powerful jobs in the country. This isn’t simply by virtue of growing up in a more affluent environment, education has a real effect here. Being surrounded with a knowledge-rich curriculum and held to high standards of behaviour pays off.

Both free schools and academies need to capitalise on their independence to match these high standards. They need to use the opportunities which come with their status, including on the curriculum and incentives structures for teachers.

To do otherwise would be to disadvantage thousands of students, acting as a barrier to competing with public school children for the best university places – and, ultimately, for the best jobs. There is a shift in the state education sector to adopt this form of teaching: teachers can see that educational empowerment is leading to a more sophisticated and ambitious curriculum, and by extension more self-disciplined and ambitious children.

Unfortunately however, since 2015 the founding of free schools has been increasingly restricted, due in no part to a failure amongst free schools, but instead a fightback by the “progressive” education establishment. It is vital that parliamentarians are bold and continue to make the case for free schools, and that teachers adapt to the new opportunities that free schools present. To do anything less would be nothing short of a betrayal of future generations.