Tuesday 27 January 2015

Free Schools: Benefits for Reading's Families

At tonight’s Reading Borough Council (RBC) meeting, the Greens’ Parliamentary Candidate for Reading East was electioneering by tabling a motion (the full text of which is here) asking for RBC officers to bring a report back on the impact of free schools in Reading taking his concerns into account.  He said that he and the Green Party would like to stop “the free school experiment”.

Below is my response:

“Before the arrival of Free Schools, parents dissatisfied with the education at their local school had limited options.  They could hope that a better school further away would offer their children places, or they could move home – if this was an affordable option, or they just had to make do.

However there is hardly any spare capacity in Reading’s schools, leaving very little chance for any family getting a place at a good school beyond their local catchment area.

Put simply I don’t think the local Greens have thought through the impact of their Party’s Education policy  in particular on disadvantaged families; nor those families within the part of Reading they represent who have campaigned to have the benefit of a Maiden Erlegh School education.

Yesterday’s Guardian had an interesting article in which Labour’s Tristram Hunt attacked the Green Party Leader.  Hunt said “Natalie Bennett speaks a language of low aspiration and defeatism.  Great schools can be the only hope for some children from disadvantaged backgrounds.” 

I agree with Hunt and am astounded that tonight’s motion fails entirely to mention, let alone focus on, the children & young people’s quality of and access to good schools.  Don’t Reading’s young deserve an education which will help them thrive and aspire?

Not only have Free Schools empowered parents by enabling them to set up schools where they are dissatisfied with standards, but also Free Schools have helped parents to set up schools where there are shortages of school places, or a lack of choice of provision. 

Without Free Schools, Reading would not have All Saints Junior School in Brownlow Road – a school set up by parents with the help of the CfBT Education Trust providing school places for children progressing up from the Infants School. 

Another example is The Heights Primary School – which has given families in the west of Caversham a realistic chance of a school place locally in Reading when for over 10 years families have had their children scattered around to schools elsewhere, for example out of borough, or across to the east of Caversham.

I am a firm believer that with schools one size does not fit all.  For some a secondary school will enable them to reach their full potential, whereas a grammar school might best suit others.  Hopefully The Avenue School Special School Academy will get the go ahead to open a new Free School which will be a linked Special School.  It will cater for yet more students and help keep Reading’s SEN students within the town, preparing them for life after education. 

Also thanks to the Free School programme students keen to progress into the IT or engineering industry can opt for a place at Reading’s University Technical College (UTC). 

Turning back to the Green’s motion before us, it is obvious they haven’t understood the massive benefits Free Schools and Academies have brought Reading’s families.  Nor have they understood the pressure Council officers are under to deliver the school expansion plan.  The Conservative Group will not be supporting their motion as the resolution is utterly pointless and would waste valuable officer time.  Delivering the school places needed, with the help of Government funded Free Schools, in time for the next academic year has got to be this council’s priority.”

RBC’s Labour administration agreed with me that the Green’s resolution was a waste of officer time and also agreed that Reading’s children & young people deserve at least a good education.  Their amendment, however showed that they are against enabling parents who are without a good local school from having the option to set up a free school in their statement "that funding for new schools will be prioritised in areas of acute need rather than waste money building free schools in areas with surplus need to suit the Coalition ideological and political experiment of free schools".

The Labour administration failed to acknowledge the many benefits families are getting as a result of the free school programme.  I think their ideology got in the way.