Ed Balls Offers to Open the West London Free School
Toby Young's school idea hotly debated on Newsnight
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.
“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.
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.”
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?
EM: But creating surplus places? In this day and age?
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?
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: 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.
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