The Government’s ambition to open 500 new free schools is not ambitious enough, says Toby Young, the new director of the New Schools Network, the taxpayer-funded charity which promotes free schools. The aim should be to open 750 by 2020.
It may be that 750 new schools will be required in the next three years to cope with the need for school places. But any new school should only be built where there is such a need. Creating new schools where there is already spare capacity is wasteful and threatens the viability of established neighbouring schools. Setting a target, whether 500 or 750, could be reckless.
Young steps into the shoes of Nick Timothy, who left NSN to become Joint Downing Street Chief of Staff when Theresa May became prime minister. He is believed to be behind plans to turn England’s education system back 50 years by introducing more selection.
Young has qualms about plans to set up more grammars. It won’t help social mobility, he wrote in the Spectator, although he could understand why parents of bright children would want them educated with other bright children. Parents should have the ‘choice’, he argued.
But parents don’t choose grammars, grammars choose their pupils. No amount of parental choice will give a grammar school place to an 11+ failure. And the existence of selection denies choice to parents who want a comprehensive education. Young instinctively realises this: he told Huffington Post that setting up more selective schools ‘wouldn’t be great’ for comprehensives such as his West London Free School. He understands that schools such as WLFS would likely lose many previously high achieving pupils to a new grammar should one be established nearby.
It may be, then, that Young’s appointment as NSN’s director will act as a break on any extension to selection. He understands it won’t do much for social mobility: ‘Sharp-elbowed middle-class parents will always find a way to game the system.’ He realises grammars can have a detrimental effect on neighbouring non-selective schools. He will, therefore, be in a difficult position if he’s asked to promote selective free schools.
I have been dubious about the free school policy. Many have been set up where spaces were not needed. Many were opened too quickly without proposers being properly vetted. Many are opened in unsuitable buildings. They’ve been promoted as ‘shock troops of innovation in our education system’. In the end, they are no different as a group than other schools.
Toby Young has been a consistent supporter of free schools since 2009. He has not wavered even in the face of opposition. Every new school now has to be a free school so the need to bang the drum for them is less. Young is in a unique position to influence the type of free school which is established. He needs to be as consistent in his doubts about selection as he has been in his enthusiasm for free schools. If he is, then we might see the divisive plan to set up new grammars watered down.
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