Michael Gove reflects on the impact and importance of free schools.
As a nation, we are blessed with some of the best schools in the world. But at the same time, we also have too many that are still struggling. There are hundreds of primaries where the majority of children fail to reach an acceptable level in English and maths. Primaries where the majority of children leave ill-equipped to face the challenges ahead. On a human level, it is a tragedy. For many of those children, their time at secondary is marked by - at best - frustration and disappointment, and - at worst - defiance and disruption.
On an economic level, it is a serious threat to our international competitiveness and puts our recovery at risk. As a country, only about half our pupils manage at least a ‘C’ in both English and maths GCSE - in Singapore, it’s four in five. In the last decade, we have plummeted down the international league tables: from 4th to 16th place in science; from 7th to 25th place in literacy; and from 8th to 28th in maths. British 15-year-olds’ maths skills are now more than two whole academic years behind 15-year-olds in China. While other countries have raced ahead we have - in the words of Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director of Education - “stagnated.” This stagnation leaves children poorly prepared for the world we face.
We have just suffered the worst financial crisis since 1929. Our economy is weighed down by a huge debt burden. Europe has major problems with debt and the euro. Meanwhile there is a rapid and historic shift of political and economic power to Asia and a series of scientific and technological changes that are transforming our culture, economy and global politics. If we do not have a school system that is adapting to and preparing for these challenges then we will betray a generation.
Already, almost half of UK employers are unable to find the science and maths specialists they need, and the majority predict problems in finding such staff in the future. And what makes the situation so much worse is that, domestically, this unpreparedness, this poor performance, is so powerfully concentrated in areas of disadvantage. Far too often, deprivation is destiny.
We have one of the most stratified and segregated school systems in the developed world. More than 70% of poor pupils in parts of China and Hong Kong exceeded the standard expected of them - compared to just a quarter here. The gap in attainment between rich and poor, which widened in recent years, is a scandal. Schools should be engines of social mobility, places where the democratisation of knowledge helps vanquish the accidents of birth. But in the system we inherited, the gap just widens over time. By age 16, a deprived pupil is only half as likely to achieve five or more good GSCEs, including English and maths. And by 18 the gap is vast. In the last year for which we have figures, just 40 out of 80,000 of our poorest pupils made it to Oxbridge - down from 45 the previous year. Far, far too many young people are being robbed of the chance to shape their own destiny. It is a moral failure; a tragic waste of talent; and an affront to social justice. We need nothing short of radical, whole-scale reform.
When it comes to deciding what such reform should be, we need to start by looking to the best. And the best - and those who want to be the best - are changing fast. When you look at the highest-performing and fastest-reforming education systems, there are three essential characteristics that stand out.
The best-performing nations - like Finland, South Korea and Singapore - all recruit their teachers from the top pool of graduates. Which is why we are reforming teacher training and expanding programmes such as Teach First, Teaching Leaders and Future Leaders, who attract the brightest and best into the classroom. And because the biggest barrier to talented people coming into or staying in teaching is poor behaviour by pupils, we are strengthening teachers’ powers to maintain order in our new Education Bill.
Secondly, the top education nations are uncompromising in their commitment to rigorous accountability. The latest analysis from the OECD underlines that smart external assessment - proper testing you can trust - helps lever up standards. You need mechanisms that send a relentless signal that you believe in holding everyone to higher and higher standards. That’s why we introduced our English Baccalaureate: to encourage more children, especially from poorer backgrounds, to take the types of qualifications that open doors to the best universities and the most exciting careers.
And thirdly, the highest-performing education systems are those where government knows when to step back. We want a school system in which teachers have more power and in which they are more accountable to parents - not politicians. It’s this characteristic of success, this driver of reform, that I want to focus on today.
Rigorous research from the OECD and others has shown that more autonomy for individual schools helps raise standards. In its most recent international survey of education, the OECD found that “in countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better.”
In Singapore, often cited as an exemplar of centralism, the Government has deliberately encouraged greater diversity in the school system - and dramatic leaps in attainment have been secured as a result. Schools where principals are exercising a progressively greater degree of operational autonomy are soaring ahead. And as the scope for innovation has grown, so Singapore’s competitive advantage over other nations has grown too.
In Sweden, the old bureaucratic monopoly that saw all state schools run by local government was ended. Over a fifth of Swedish schools are now non-selective, highly-autonomous, state Free Schools. Academic studies confirm that pupils at these schools get better results than pupils at traditional schools; that Free Schools improve standards across the local authority; and that parental satisfaction has significantly increased.
In Canada, and specifically in Alberta, a diverse range of autonomous schools offer professionals freedom and parents choice. As a result, Alberta now has the best performing state schools of any English-speaking region.
And in America - where the Charter Schools system implemented by New York and Chicago is perhaps the quintessential model of school autonomy - the results are extraordinary. One need only look at the figures. The median income of families in New York City Charter Schools is 30% lower than in the city as a whole. And ethnic minorities, who have historically been failed by the school system, are overrepresented in Charter Schools: Charter school neighbourhoods are 75 per cent more black and 30 per cent more Hispanic than across the City as a whole. Yet Charters are helping these pupils achieve amazing things. Pupils attending Charter Schools achieve better results than those who applied for a charter school but failed to secure a place in the admissions lottery. And the longer pupils stay in Charter Schools, the better they do: a pupil who attends a Charter School is 7 per cent more likely to get a high school diploma for every year they are there. So three years in a Charter means they are 21 per cent more likely to get a diploma than if they had attended a traditional state school.
In his excellent article in this month’s Atlantic - which I would encourage you all to read - New York City Education Chancellor Joel Klein holds up Harlem Success Academy 1 as an example of just what autonomous schools can achieve. Harlem Success Academy 1 has a pupil intake of amongst the most disadvantaged in the state. Yet the school now performs at the same level as New York City’s gifted-and-talented schools - all of which have tough admissions requirements, while Success randomly selects its pupils by lottery. And when schools achieve those kind of results, parents sit up and take notice. As Klein says: “…[W]e should make sure that every student has at least one alternative - and preferably several - to her neighborhood [primary] school. We implemented this strategy by opening more than 100 charter schools in high-poverty communities. Tellingly, almost 40,000 families chose these new schools, and another 40,000 are on waiting lists.”
Across the world, then, autonomy is proving a key driver of success. The good news in England is that we already have some excellent domestic examples to draw on. Granting greater autonomy has already generated success stories here. In the five or so years after 1988, the last Conservative Government created fifteen City Technology Colleges. These schools are all-ability comprehensives, but they enjoy much greater independence than other schools. Overwhelmingly, they are located in poorer areas - yet this doesn’t stop them achieving great results.
Seeing the success of CTCs, the last government took the principle of autonomy forward under its Academies programme. The scheme took chronically failing schools away from Local Authorities and placed them under the wing of a sponsor, who was given the freedom and flexibility to implement real change. Last month, academics at the London School of Economics published a landmark assessment of the scheme. They found three things. First, that “Academy conversion generates… a significant improvement in pupil performance.” Second, that this improvement is not the result of Academies ‘creaming-off’ pupils from nearby schools: the fact that more middle-class parents want to send their children to their local Academy is a consequence of the school’s success, not a cause. And thirdly - and most significantly - beyond raising standards for their own pupils, Academies also tend to raise pupil performance in neighbouring schools. Success, it seems, is contagious.
It would be negligent not to try and build on this success so we’re expanding on what’s already working well. We remain committed to this original strand of the Academies programme - and we are taking it further than ever before. This year, we will open more sponsored Academies than the last Government did in the first eight years of the Academies programme - and more than in any single year in the history of the scheme. 88 schools have already been identified and will open in the next academic year. We are also expanding the programme to failing primaries. We are working to identify the weakest 200 primary schools in the country; they will become Academies in 2012.
But autonomy isn’t just a mechanism for reversing underperformance - it works for accelerating high performance as well. So we decided to allow those professionals who were already doing a brilliant job to really spread their wings. We began by allowing any outstanding school to convert to an Academy. And now we’re enabling more schools to reap the benefits of autonomy by letting any schools apply for academy status - provided it’s teamed with a high-performing school. The rapid conversion of so many great schools to academies means there is now a pool of excellent institutions to build chains of schools, simultaneously autonomous and collaborative, working in partnership to raise standards. Over 1,200 schools have applied for Academy status. Over 800 of these applications have been approved. Over 400 have already converted and are open - bringing the total number of open academies to over 700. Tony Blair, the architect of the reform programme his party has now rejected, said that reaching 400 Academies would have a “transformative effect” on the education system. Well, we’ve almost doubled that in a year. We are transforming education in this country at an unprecedented pace.
And if it’s possible to become an autonomous school by partnering with another school, or by securing a sponsor, or by converting, then it should also be possible to start a truly autonomous, truly free, school from scratch. So we invited teacher groups, parent groups, charities and others to apply to set up their own schools. In the first year, over 300 answered the call, and I am delighted that over a dozen Free Schools are expected to open this September.
Before the election, countless people told me that it was foolish to expect any Free Schools at all to open in September 2011. Pilot the scheme for September 2012, they said, and don’t expect any serious numbers until September 2015. But we proved them wrong. The first Free Schools will open just 7 to 12 months after submitting their initial plans to the Department. This is remarkable. In the past, it normally took between three and five years to set up a maintained school. Elmgreen School, one of the first parent-promoted schools, took four years to open from conception. JCoSS, a Jewish community secondary, took nine years. It took five years to create the first 15 CTCs. It took one term of office to create the first 17 Academies. Yet we expect to have more than a dozen new schools open in just over a year.
And we’re not just getting great new schools open more quickly - we’re doing it more efficiently too. We are not being prescriptive about Free Schools and so they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are housed in existing schools. Others will be based in a range of refurbished and adapted buildings, including a former library in London and an office building in Norwich. The critical point is that we have been thinking creatively about how to secure excellent new schools at a time when budgets are tight.
Delivering high quality education against the backdrop of public spending pressures is one of the two major challenges facing my department. The other is demography. Nationally, we could need around quarter of a million more primary school places by 2014-15 - with London feeling this squeeze more than most. So we announced in December that we would double the levels of ‘basic need’ funding spent by the last Government to £800m to help LAs provide new places. The Free Schools programme could help us alleviate some of the pressure as well. Schools like the Harris Free School in Peckham and Redbridge Primary will, from September, help meet local demand in areas facing a serious problem with places.
But satisfying local demand is about more than the macro-level argument of basic need. On a human level, it’s about meeting parents’ desire for a good local school - a school that’s easy to get to, that feels like part of the community. Unsurprisingly, a number of applications come either from community groups trying to save a beloved local school or start one in a hitherto neglected area. Like Stour Valley Community School in Suffolk, or the SABRES group in Breckland, where parents’ ‘Save our School’ campaigns are protecting the ideal of great community education.
And even where there are places at local schools, they’re not necessarily the type of school places parents are happy with. A choice between two things you don’t want is hardly a choice at all. Free Schools offer a genuine alternative - and they have the freedom to be different. Like the Norwich Free School, which will integrate high-quality education and child-care year-round. The school will be sited right in the heart of Norwich so that working parents can make full use of the affordable extended school provision which will be available on the school premises for 6 days each week, 51 weeks of the year.
What is also remarkable is just how many Free Schools want to use this freedom to innovate specifically for the benefit of the very poorest. In America, the Charter School movement was started by idealistic young teachers who were sick and tired of the entrenched practices that were persistently failing the most vulnerable. There is the same appetite for change here, and it’s clearly manifest in the first tranche of Free Schools. The teachers running the outstanding Cuckoo Hall Academy, for example, have decided to set up a new school - Woodpecker Hall Primary Academy - so they can reach more deprived children in North London. Indeed, around a third of the Free Schools aiming to open in September are located in the 20% most deprived areas in the country, and we hope to see many more Free Schools targeting disadvantage in the future.
The latest application round closed just two weeks ago and, as the Free Schools team in the department goes through the proposals, we’re already seeing some interesting things. Encouragingly, there has been no drop-off in momentum: despite introducing a more rigorous application process, we have received 281 applications to set up a Free School in 2012. For the first time, we called for groups to set up special Free Schools, so that children with Special Educational Needs could have access to more excellent state special schools. Twenty groups answered the call. For the first time, we invited applications for alternative provision Free Schools, so that we could provide more targeted intervention for young people at risk. Thirty four groups took up the challenge. And we are also encouraging businesses and universities to help tackle the shortage of high-quality technical education by setting up University Technical Colleges. Thirty seven groups have applied to open a UTC next year.
Twelve applications came from existing Academy providers who, like Cuckoo Hall, want to use their expertise to help even more of the poorest pupils. Over half of applications - 126 in total - came from teacher, parent or community groups, ready to play a bigger role in shaping local children’s futures. We’ve even had an application from a Premiership football club: Everton FC is hoping to start an alternative provision Free School that would use sport to engage a wider spectrum of students.
The process is continually evolving. We are constantly reviewing and refining the programme to help get high-quality schools open where they are most needed. We’ve always made clear that we want children from the very poorest homes to have access to the very best education. If there are Academy sponsors or Free School groups who especially want to target poorer children, then we need to think of ways we can help them do just that. We’re currently consulting about whether Academies and Free Schools should be able to prioritise children receiving the pupil premium. Schools would know that the more children they managed to attract from poorer backgrounds, the more funding they would get. The pupil premium gives schools the money need to help the poorest; changing the Admissions Code lets that money operate as a genuine incentive.
While we’re in a hurry to get new schools open up and down the country, we are uncompromising when it comes to quality. The bar for entry is set high, and we make no apologies for that. In recent months, we’ve adapted the application process, making it more rigorous and learning from the best practice around the world. We’ve developed a new application form, requiring applicants to provide more detail about their school. We’ve introduced interviews for shortlisted proposals, so we can ensure only the strongest are successful. And we’ve introduced a single application deadline, allowing us to judge applications against each other and identify only the very best to take forward.
As the Prime Minister made clear in his Munich speech, we are absolutely determined to ensure that no one who has an extremist agenda - whether it’s politically or religiously extremist - has access to public money. Of course, it’s a free country, and we’re not going to attempt to police what people believe. But we are determined to ensure that those who receive public funding - and especially those who are shaping young minds - do not peddle an extremist agenda. That’s why, in response to an excellent Policy Exchange report, we have set up a dedicated team within the Department who will rigorously police any application for public money, including Free School applications. And we make it explicit in the application guidance that we will reject any proposers who advocate violence, intolerance, or hatred, or whose ideology runs counter to the UK’s democratic values.
Yes, the application process is rigorous. But clearing that hurdle doesn’t mean schools are off the hook. We know that autonomy works best when it’s paired with sharp, smart accountability. Last week, I announced that we would intervene in the weakest 200 primary schools in the country and put them in the hands of sponsors who could turn them round. I said we would identify a further 500 primaries for urgent collaboration with the Department. I said we would raise the floor standards and ask more of all our schools. Let me be clear: these tough measures apply to maintained schools, Academies and Free Schools alike. When it comes to failing schools, there are no favoured children, no ‘get out of jail free’ cards. When an Academy is failing, when a Free School is letting pupils down, then action needs to be swift.
But just as we must be uncompromising in our vigilance, we must be unyielding in our resolve. There will be glitches and hurdles along the way. Reform is untidy business; sweeping reform even more so. There are no smooth revolutions. Still, we must press forward. We are, after all, spurred by a moral imperative: we simply cannot afford to let another generation of children down.