Free schools, the cynics say, are cuckoos in the nest. They’re greedy interlopers, swallowing up the resources which should properly go to the existing family of schools.
The only children who’ll benefit, they say, are the rich. Because it’s the sharp-elbowed middle classes who’ve barged their way into these schools.
It’s a powerful argument. Which, nevertheless, has nothing to do with the facts. Free schools have been created to save children from being poorly served by other local schools, whether through poor standards or a desperate lack of places.
And the people behind them are crusaders for social justice who deserve all our thanks. Their principal opponents - like Tony Benn’s daughter, the Hon Melissa Benn, or Alastair Campbell’s partner Fiona Millar - tend to be well-connected media types from London’s most privileged circles.
But the free school I’m opening today in Enfield serves children from some of our least privileged neighbourhoods. Woodpecker Hall has been set up by a modest but inspirational headteacher who has devoted her life to helping children in need.
Patricia Sowter took over her first school, Cuckoo Hall, when it was in special measures and risked closure because it was so bad. Now it is one of England’s best, doing far better than the national average.
Two-thirds of pupils leave at age 11 performing as well as most 14-year-olds, though the school has twice as many pupils from poor homes as the national average.
Patricia has already helped turn round schools elsewhere in London and in Cambridgeshire. Now, under the Coalition, she is launching a new primary. So 450 more children can benefit from her traditional teaching, strong discipline and wonderful, loving, pastoral care.
Patricia’s is just one of 24 free schools opening this week, many set up by inspirational teachers like her. Sajjid Husain Raza, the son of a bus driver from Bradford who read science at Oxford, has gone back to his home town to open one for underprivileged children ambitious to follow in his footsteps.
In Norwich, a group led by another great teacher, Tania Sidney-Roberts, is launching one that will open from 8:15am to 5:45pm, 51 weeks a year, to give hard-pressed working parents a better deal.
By allowing teachers, not bureaucrats, to run schools, we have given the people who know most about education the chance to make an even bigger difference.
And by opening superb schools that bring smaller class sizes, longer hours and inspirational teaching, we force complacent local authorities to raise their game and improve all schools.