Could Theresa May’s government herald the rise of free schools and a return to widespread selective education?
Since the Prime Minister’s inaugural speech, delivered outside Downing Street on 13 July 2016, speculation in relation to the role of free schools and the return of grammar schools has swept through the sector, prompting emotive statements such as: “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately”, it is unsurprising.
Counting a grammar school education as one of the founding factors in her success, and lending her support to a grammar school “annexe” in her Berkshire constituency, it is clear that the Prime Minister is supportive of selective education.
So where do free schools fit into the educational landscape, and how might they be used to further the return of grammar schools?
The rise of free schools can be charted back to David Cameron’s re-election pledge to open 500 free schools by 2020, creating 270,000 school places and bringing the total number of additional school places created since 2010 to 236,000. A flagship policy of former Education Secretary Michael Gove, free schools were given approval in the Academies Act 2010, which stipulated that all future schools created had to be free schools or academies. There are currently 304 free schools across the country, and 138 set to open their doors from September 2016.
The government defines free schools as establishments which are “funded by the government, but aren’t run by the local council”. It also states that free schools are not obliged to follow the national curriculum, and have “more control over how they do things”, but they are unable to “use academic selection processes like a grammar school”.
Recent reports suggest that key figures in the Prime Minister’s inner circle, such as Chief of Staff, Nick Timothy, are keen to end the Labour-imposed ban on grammar schools, by amending the existing free schools policy to allow parents to open selective secondary schools.
Formerly the director of free school charity, the New Schools Network (NSN), Mr Timothy is also an outspoken advocate of selective education, citing his own grammar school education as “transformational” to his working-class upbringing in Birmingham.
According to a government source, Mr Timothy “seems to influence what [Ms May] thinks to an almost scary extent”. He also told reporters that he doesn’t “really see why we have a fairly arbitrary rule” against the opening of “some selective schools” where parents want them.
Grammar schools by any other name?
It’s possible that the government could change free school legislation to bring back grammar schools when there is parental demand, rather than risking the complex legal challenges that could be mounted by the opposition if legislation was to be overturned. In order to achieve this, the government could change the free school model, introducing tougher criteria to demonstrate support for selective education.
One government insider has been reported as saying: “It would be a much savvier way of bringing grammars back than having to change the law or overturning ballots.” Although this may be difficult to achieve, as other government experts have suggested that a move of this nature would still require the government to change the law brought in by Tony Blair’s Cabinet in 1998.
Could the requirement for parental involvement explain the Prime Minister’s emotive comments in relation to the apparently limited life chances offered by state-education? According to the latest official survey of British social attitudes, 60 percent of Britons regard themselves as “working class of the mind” and 75 percent of respondents felt that the class divide was “fairly or very wide”.
Selective independent education plays upon parents’ fears that their children’s life chances may be affected by a lacklustre education, and by ‘settling’ for a mainstream state education, they could be condemning their children to a life of dead-end jobs.
Delivered as part of her leadership campaign speech, Ms May said: “We need a government that will deliver serious social reform – and make ours a country that truly works for everyone.” If Theresa May seeks to address this through independent education, then an inconvenient truth must be addressed. In 2013, children living in the poorest parts of the country had less than a 10 percent chance of getting into a grammar school, compared to children in more affluent areas, who had a 50 percent chance.
Opportunity for social reform?
Although accusations of elitism could be levelled at the government, it could be argued that a desire to address inequality of opportunity in education is a factor in the expansion of the free schools programme, as two-thirds of free schools have been established in deprived areas of the country, and according to the NSN, free schools are “twice as likely to be judged as ‘outstanding’ in like-for-like comparison with other state schools”.
In addition to this, the NSN suggests that 86 percent of free schools offer a longer school day and greater flexibility to working parents, compared to 19 percent of academies. It also states that free schools are able to spend more time teaching literacy and numeracy due to the extra hours of teaching that are available.
Ms May’s desire to “bring together the two great reforms of the last parliament – police reform and school reform” in the establishment of “alternative provision of free schools to support troubled children and prevent them falling into a life of crime”, appears to be another reason for the subtle shift away from academies since she entered Number 10.
Regardless of the intentions behind the government’s agenda for expanding the free schools programme, one thing is for sure: the government is paving the way for free schools to feature more prominently on the educational landscape. On 15 July 2016, a High Court judge ruled in favour of the government in a landmark planning battle over a free school site, driving claims that LAs can now be “ignored” over where future schools are located. The ruling has raised concerns that the government can effectively place free schools wherever it wants, and disregard claims raised by LAs. If this is the case, a free school could be opening near you very soon.
Alan Travis (2016) ‘May wants police commissioners to set up free schools for ‘troubled children’, <https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/feb/04/may-wants-elected-commissioners-to-set-up-free-schools-for-troubled-children> [Accessed: 18 July 2016]
GOV.UK (2015) ‘Prime Minister: we will not waver in free schools pledge’, <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-we-will-not-waver-in-free-schools-pledge> [Accessed: 18 July 2016]
GOV.UK (2016) ‘Statement from the new Prime Minister Theresa May’, <https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/statement-from-the-new-prime-minister-theresa-may> [Accessed: 18 July 2016]
GOV.UK (2016) ‘Types of school’, <https://www.gov.uk/types-of-school/free-schools> [Accessed: 18 July 2016]
Isabel Hardman (2016) ‘Beware the aides of May! The people who will really run the government’, <http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/mays-man-influence/> [Accessed: 18 July 2016]
John Dickens (2016) ‘High court backs government in landmark free school site ruling’, <http://schoolsweek.co.uk/high-court-backs-government-in-landmark-free-school-site-ruling/> [Accessed: 18 July 2016]
Laura Mcinerney (2016) ‘Profile: Nick Timothy’, <http://schoolsweek.co.uk/nick-timothy/> [Accessed: 18 July 2016]
Laura Mcinerney (2016) ‘Justine Greening doesn’t need grammar schools to bring back selection’, <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jul/18/justine-greening-grammar-schools-selection> [Accessed: 18 July 2016]
New Schools Network (2016) ‘What are free schools?’, <http://www.newschoolsnetwork.org/what-are-free-schools> [Accessed: 18 July 2016]
Patrick Butler (2016) ‘Most Britons regard themselves as working class, survey finds’, <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jun/29/most-brits-regard-themselves-as-working-class-survey-finds> [Accessed: 18 July 2016]
Richard Vaughan (2016) ‘Theresa May’s government could usher in new era of grammar school education’ <https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/theresa-mays-government-could-usher-new-era-grammar-school-education> [Accessed: 18 July 2016]
Rowena Mason (2016) ‘May promises social reform in centrist leadership pitch’, <http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/11/theresa-may-tory-leadership-pitch-andrea-leadsom> [Accessed: 18 July 2016]