Ed Balls Offers to Open the West London Free School

Toby Young's school idea hotly debated on Newsnight

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Toby Young continues to grab the headlines with his plan to start a free school in Acton and an appearance on Newsnight this week brought some surprises: Ed Balls offered to open the West London Free School for Toby; Toby worried that the proposed site for the school (a closely guarded secret) is a good distance from his home and possibly his own children would not be entitled to places there.

After a short film with a voiceover by Toby, partly filmed in Churchfield Road’s popular new bakery-coffee shop Laveli’s, he debated the issue with Ed Balls the Shadow Schools Minister.

The Newsnight item adds to the debate about free schools which is hotly debated on the discussion forums on ActonW3.com, EalingToday.co.uk, ChiswickW4.com, on Toby’s blog and elsewhere.

During the film, Toby started by admitting that his group of parents and teachers hoping to set up what they hope will be one of England’s first free schools in Ealing, is “not  going to get very far without the  right political support both locally and nationally.”

He continued: “As a father of four, I’ve become obsessed with the local schools.

“The Queen’s speech was undoubtedly very encouraging in that it included an academies bill which signals the government’s enthusiastic support for the creation of new academies.

“Several people asked me whether I am disappointed that there was nothing in the Queen’s speech explicity about free schools. But our group has never required any primary legislation in order to make progress.

“The only distinctive thing about our academy is that it’ll be sponsored by a parent and teacher group and we think it’ll be possible to set up an academy along those lines within the existing academies framework. Indeed it might have been possible even under Labour with a more well-disposed secretary of state – Andrew Adonis for instance rather than Ed Balls.

“There is one piece of the academies bill that does apply to us and that is that the government are proposing to remove the veto that local authorities currently have over the set-up of new academies. The idea is to set up a really good high performing academic secondary school that all children have access to regardless of income, ability or faith.

“But we don’t particularly want to operate the school ourselves, so we’ve been talking to a number of different established education providers with a view to finding the partner who is the best fit for us. Something like 10 have actually already submitted proposals ranging from commercial companies at one end of the spectrum to charities already involved with the English state education sector at the other.”

Toby met Nick Grant the Secretary of the local branch of the NUT (National Union of Teachers – Ealing branch) to see if he could win him over.

Nick Grant called the idea of free schools  “highly undemocratic and very problematic” with the Secretary of State having the power to decide which communities get  funding. He thought that taking the local authorities out of the equation represents a huge step back from the democratic process and the whole concept of public services in Britain.

Toby asked him whether he was  being a bit alarmist: “ It’s not as if that many schools are going to opt out of local authority control and become academies – I can’t imagine thousands of groups like mine setting up free schools. Local authorities will still be the main provider of secondary education it’s really just an alternative to provide local parents with a little more choice.”

Nick Grant said that Toby’s school would “completely affect the ecology of admissions in Ealing Borough.” He said that Toby is effectively throwing  “ a depth charge into that pond .... [causing] ripples all across the Borough.”

Toby countered this argument,  saying that there is already huge pressure on primary school places in Ealing because of the population boom and “before long we are going to need a large number of new secondary school places.”

He then moved on from discussing the matter to admitted that finding a site is the most difficult challenge for the group. “ The way we went about finding a site was to get a map of Ealing,  divide it into 12 sections and each of the 12 members of the steering committee got on their bike and combed their section with a camera looking for suitable buildings.

“Incredibly one of the people on the steering committee actually stumbled across an unused secondary school. The only disadvantage of this site is that it’s about three miles from where I live and we don’t know quite what our admissions policy would be yet but we think it’s important that it should be a completely fair admissions policy that doesn’t give any advantage to pushy middle-class parents. We want the school to be for everybody – not just the children of the people who’ve set it up and I think what we’ll probably end up doing is having some kind of lottery which means that I’ll just have to take my chances alongside everyone else ...but it might end up with me not being able to get my own children into the school which would be a bit disappointing.”

Emily Maitlis (EM) then introduced Toby (TY) and Ed Balls (EB) who were debating the issue in the television studio. Here is a rough transcript of the debate:

EM: Do you like the idea of parent power?

EB: Of course. To be  honest  If Toby was setting up a school in Ealing and I was living near-by I think the idea of going to Toby’s school would be very attractive. I think the issue is that in lots of other parts of the country there aren’t always educated people like me or Toby with time on our hands who can go and establish those schools in that way and as he says there’s also got to be a need because if there’s not a need for places and you’re going to create a new school and extra places here the danger is that the price is going to be paid by the new school building planned and now cancelled; the teachers and teaching assistants taken away from the school down the road because the reality is – if you’ve got a new school and a school there you’ll be paying two heating bills, two teachers’ bills, two catering bills, two sports bills and the question I think Toby’s got to ask Michael Gove is – where’s the money going to come from to pay for all of this?  I don’t see any more money to pay for it.

EM:  Toby, you said the schools in Acton are over-subscribed. Should that be the criteria that needs to be established before a free school [is] set up. If everything is over-subscribed in your neighbourhood, you do it – otherwise you don’t.

TY: I think provided there’s  genuine parental demand then groups like mine should have the opportunity to set up schools. I mean I think this issue that Ed’s drawn attention to is a bit of a red herring. We know that we’re going to need 300,000 new primary school [places] over the next three years. It’s really a question of who builds those schools. And if you allow groups like ours to put schools in leased buildings as opposed to using money to build schools for the future, to set up new buildings when a lot of that money gets siphoned off by architects,  consultants..., it’s actually a  much more cost-effective way of meeting what we know will be a demand for more secondary school places than building new schools.

EB: We had a test case for this a few weeks ago in Kirklees where there was a group of parents who didn’t like the way the local authority – the Labour local authority – had planned the schools and they said we want to have a new school in addition for our children. And I didn’t say no to that at all because in principle I think parents setting up schools is a great idea if it can work. But I asked an independent expert to go and look and in the end he said there’s not the need for the extra places, there isn’t the money to pay for it and the price would be the new academy which is being opened probably not succeeding; new school buildings which were planned for other schools failing and money being taken away from other schools to pay for that school there. Now Toby says we should take away the local authority veto and just say if parents want it, fine but I come back to this: if the local authority doesn’t have any controlling view of the budget and the parents want more new schools where does the money come from? If Michael Gove was saying to us here’s more money – he’s actually saying these free schools and his pupil premium are all being paid for from the existing budget.

EM: Toby you would probably say as a parent “it’s not my problem I just want a school for my kids”, but on a wider level that’s going to be catastrophic, isn’t it?

TY: No, I don’t think it is, I don’t the effect of allowing parents to start schools even where the starting of those schools will create surplus places will have a catastrophic effect.

EM: But creating  surplus places? In this day and age?

TY: IT’s like saying don’t allow parents to set up new schools just in case people want to go to those schools and it’s to do the existing schools a disservice to say the only reason parents are sending their children to those schools is because they simply have no choice but to do that. If people are given a genuine choice, some may still elect to send their children to local authority schools not to the new free school.

EB: But back to my point Toby – if you start a new school and you leave all the existing schools there you’re heating two classrooms, you’re paying for two caterers.. where does the money come from?

EM: I just want to raise a point – you used the phrase “pushy middle class parent”. Now I remember the last time we talked about this you held a meeting for the parents involved. It was in a gastro-pub. None of the poorer parents came. They were totally isolated from this. Isn’t that still a major worry for you that it comes across as a middle-class fantasy?

TY: That is a worry because I think that what people take away from that is that it is only going to be for the sort of children of the people who set up the school – for middle class children and that’s simply not the case. One of the reasons that free schools have elsewhere contributed to social segregation is because they have different admissions policies to the existing local authority maintained schools. In Sweden for instance they have a first come first served admissions policy. That’s not going to be the admissions policy of our school. It will be more or less identical to the admissions policy of all the surrounding comprehensives. There will be no way the pushy middle-class parents will be able to secure admittance for their children.

EM: (to EB) People like Toby wouldn’t be going to this length if he wasn’t deeply unhappy with what your government had done for 13 years – that heavy-handed top-down insistence on the LEA throughout.

EB: In 1997 half of secondary schools weren’t making the grade. We got that down to one in twelve secondary schools. There is still more to do. We focussed our efforts with academies and investment on those under-performing schools – but I think you’re right. The danger is that there will be winners in this policy but it is dishonest not to say that there will be losers as well.

EM: Your policy is divided on this one Ed because Adonis came in and said “we’re going to relinquish some of that power”. You came in as schools minister and slammed your fists down and said “no, we’ve got to have the set national curriculum again.”

EB: I think you’ve been reading some newspaper columns which got it wrong because Andrew Adonis and I were at one on this. He and I were always clear. We needed locally authority agreement. We weren’t going to create masses of excess places and we wanted fair admissions but also weren’t going to have as happened in Sweden: private companies going round the country touting to parents – if you want a new school then the government will give you the money from wherever.

EM: You wanted a local authority veto, that’s true

EB: No because actually the local authority veto was always there. Andrew Adonis was always clear – we never had new academies without the agreement of the local authority. What I did was remove the 2million entry fee and said I don’t want people with money, I want people with educational expertise.

EM: Even David Milliband, a former education secretary himself, says you failed on education.

EB: I don’t think we failed on education at all.

TY: You did undermine the academies programme by giving local authorities much more control and involvement over the set-up of academies. Of the new academies that are coming on stream this September, 31 are co-sponsored by local authorities and the initial impetus behind the academies programme was to create an alternative to local authority schools where they weren’t really serving local children and you undermined that by bringing local authorities much more into the whole set-up.

EM: [to Toby] Let me just ask you about something which appears on your website because on your website you say that something which has a mixture of GCSE’s and IB’s (International Baccalaureat) you essentially make it harder for parents to assess anything about league tables or where they are – a muddying of the waters in terms of no set curriculum.

TY: We don’t want to muddy the waters. We want to provide more information than is currently provided about schools. I think one of the problems with many local authority maintained schools is that they teach to the test. They try and get up their position in the league tables and we don’t want that to be the culture of our school.

EM: Isn’t it right that parents can look at a table and say yes ok this tells us something about the school?

TY: Yes  absolutely and that table should be enriched with more detail. Can I just go back to this point about how free schools are going to be funded. One of the funding models we’re looking at is to enter into partnership with an established education provider such as a commercial company or a charity and they will pay the capital start-up for us.

EB: I think having profit-making companies touting for business with parents will be a backwards step. We’ve never had that in 60 years of education and I find that your anti local authority stance – to be honest I think there will be many councillors and parents around the country who will think yes fine you set up your school but actually there are lots of local authorities and lots of schools with hundreds of thousands of teachers doing a brilliant job... don’t run down their achievements.

EM: We’ll invite you back in September.

EB: I’ll come and open it for you Toby.

EM: There’s an offer you can’t refuse.


May 5, 2010