From creationism and bullying to declining standards, free schools are a complete and utter failure

But when will David Cameron finally admit defeat and stop trying to expand them?

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Today, the last day of the Parliament, marks another failure in the Government’s flagship Free Schools programme. Following a damning Ofsted verdict last year, the Government has today pulled the funding at Durham Free School, and the school has now shut down for good.

Among the issues that Ofsted uncovered were weak achievement, poor behaviour, widespread bullying, a culture of low expectations – and most astonishingly, creationism being taught as scientific fact.

Despite this, Department of Education officials visiting the school less than six months earlier had given it a clean bill of health. They found that the school was “successful”, promoted “positive” pupil attitudes, and had behaviour of a “high order”.

This provides the starkest evidence yet that a hopelessly overstretched department is unable to uphold school standards from behind Whitehall desks. And if creationism was being taught in this school under the radar, we have to ask: what else is going on in free schools? Parents have a right to know what is happening in their children’s schools, and the taxpayer has a right to know why public money is being wasted on such disasters.

This is not the first free school failure. It was also at this time last year that the Discovery New School in Crawley became the first to permanently close its doors. At the time I received a letter from a parent whose children had attended this school. Faced with the onerous task of enrolling her children at a new local primary, she knew exactly who and what to blame.

“Having been a free school parent from the policy’s inception, I can categorically say that the notion of a ‘free school’ is the definition of ‘playing politics’ if ever there was one. Unfortunately it has been at the expense of my children’s education.

“A couple with no formal teaching qualifications, or experience in running a school were given a budget of £500,000 to play school with”, she continued. “Gove obviously dropped the ball on that one because their lack of experience and ineptitude was palpable from the beginning, and left largely unmonitored it was inevitable that a storm would brew.”

Yet it was her eerily prescient conclusion that most registered. “No free school is safe,” she predicted. “I expect to see many more in the coming years fail spectacularly and close, failing the children they were set up to serve. And when they do fail they pose a logistical re-schooling nightmare. Not to mention the years of wasted public money.”

This morning, parents at the Durham Free School will know precisely what she means.

And yet the free schools charade continues. Because rather than shelve his discredited flagship scheme, earlier this month the Prime Minister proudly announced plans for its extension.


Forget about the "chaos" at the Al-Madinah free school, where Ofsted had to create a new "dysfunctional" category just to score it within its framework. Disregard the debacle of the IES Breckland School in Suffolk, where early last year some pupils’ English standards actually declined.

This – as my Crawley correspondent might have put it – is the “definition of playing politics.” For what matters here is our sphinx without a riddle Prime Minister and his desperate search for something approaching a political purpose. Nothing more clearly speaks to the electorate about the future than education. That his chief plan for schooling is to expand his flawed Free School programme, with all its waste and failure, only serves to highlight the paucity of his vision for Britain.

Here’s the rub: no convincing case remains for the Free Schools programme. No matter how many reports with dubious sample sizes Tory leaning think-tanks knock-up, the programme is unequivocally causing standards to slide.

One third of free schools inspected are rated “inadequate” or “requires improvement” by Ofsted, compared with less than a fifth of all state schools. Free Schools have led the way on unqualified teachers – with one third employing staff without proper teaching qualifications, something Ofsted have picked up on in their inspections, finding that these staff desperately need training and lack the skills and knowledge to improve teaching.

What's more, in a time of acute financial pressures and a school place crisis, the programme has diverted millions of pounds to areas where there is already a surplus of places. And when we need a step-change in innovation to deliver a 21st century education system that secures long-term prosperity for working families, research has shown that free schools fail miserably on that count too.

Labour has a far better plan for school standards – focusing on raising teaching quality, rather than what schools are called, capping infant class sizes at 30, extending autonomy for heads, and delivering a tough new system of local oversight for all state schools. We're also proposing a new Directors of School Standards in all areas of the country, that will root out falling standards and challenge underperformance.

We would end the flawed free schools programme and roll-out a collaborative approach to raising standards, based upon the success of our London Challenge programme. And because of our sensible approach to balancing the books, we will be able to protect the entire education budget, revive Sure Start, expand free childcare, transform technical education and guarantee a world-class apprenticeship to every young person who gets the grades.

In contrast, the Prime Minister and his ideas-bereft Education Secretary have nothing left to offer working parents and their children. “Family friendly”? They must be joking.

Tristram Hunt MP is Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary