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Graham Brady MP and Lord Lingfield: To open up educational opportunity for all, we must give schools autonomy and the freedom to select

Graham Brady is the Member of Parliament for Altrincham and Sale West, and Lord Lingfield is a Conservative peer who was Chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Trust, and a key advisor to successive Shadow Education Secretaries.

The great divide in the education debate is not between Left and Right, but those who excuse failure and those who do not. To raise standards and extend opportunity, we must challenge under-performance and have the courage to allow innovation and choice.

The Coalition government has taken some steps in the right direction. Rules on school discipline have been improved, the curriculum strengthened, exams made more rigorous and some school choice introduced. The expansion of academy schools and Free Schools is another important step forward.

However, if we are to revolutionise educational opportunity for all, we must first be prepared to ask uncomfortable questions. For instance, why do 68% of state school-educated children in Kingston get five or more good GCSEs, including English and Maths, while in Bristol only 40% achieve this? Why does Buckinghamshire (67%) out-perform Oxfordshire (58%)? Of the top ten Local Education Authorities for getting state school pupils into Britain’s best universities, why is only one outside the South East?

If comparisons between state schools can be challenging, recent Sutton Trust research shows a shocking divide between performance in the independent sector and the state sector. Nearly a third of Oxbridge students come from just a hundred schools. Eighty four of these are independent schools; the other fourteen are state grammar schools.

What has caused this?

Exam results are part of the answer, but there is also a more insidious reason. Increasingly, the A Level courses that get pupils to top universities, and open doors to studying medicine, law, sciences or classics, are not offered by comprehensive schools. Therefore, independent and grammar schools account for a disproportionate share of pupils studying for the most academically challenging and respected A Levels. Independent schools educate just 7% of children, but almost a third of pupils studying Further Maths, and a quarter of those studying Physics, are from independent schools.

This has led to some outcomes which are, on the face of it, rather surprising. For instance, in Camden, a quarter of children are educated privately. In Hackney, the scene of some of the worst rioting in August, this figure is one in five, yet in leafy Bromley less than one child in ten attends an independent school. In Trafford, the proportion of children at independent schools (5%), is less than half that in less affluent Stockport (10.6%). Why is this? The answer: the state sector is failing more children in places like Hackney, Camden and Stockport, and parents who can afford the fees, sometimes with enormous personal sacrifice, feel they have no choice but to educate their children privately.

So what must the next Conservative government do to drive up standards and make choice a reality for everyone?

First, schools need more autonomy.

The Coalition government is right to drive for more autonomy for state schools, but much remains to be done. By May 2011, 400 schools had converted into academy schools. A thousand more are in the pipeline. However, there are still huge areas of the country where little is happening and the quality of education remains astoundingly low. All too frequently it is the areas with the lowest performance which are most resistant to change. At the moment, the policy is "permissive", and schools do not have to opt for this new autonomous status. However, having seen the success of this policy, we should, in the next parliament, extend the benefits of independence to all schools as they meet a required standard.

Second, we need real choice for parents.

Communities should be given real freedom to establish Free Schools, and Local Authorities should be obliged to facilitate the process. It may be that we can learn from some of the most effective Charter School models, such as that in Arizona, where a separate Charter School Board has responsibility for driving the process forward.

Michael Gove is consulting on the creation of a per capita National Funding Formula which will bring more transparency and equity to school funding. At the moment, two comparable schools, five miles apart, but in different Local Authorities, can receive very different levels of funding. It would be far more efficient and transparent if schools were funded based on the number of pupils they had, appropriately but clearly weighted to reflect factors such as deprivation or large populations with English as a second language. This would result in more money being spent in classrooms instead of sticking to the side of the local authority and central government tube. 

We look to a future when a per capita funding formula would allow parents to use the sum of money available for the education of their child in any school of their choice, be it a Free School, an academy or an independent school prepared to offer a place at the same cost. 

Third, the government should lower the barriers between state and independent schools.

As more state schools operate autonomously, they will share many characteristics with independent schools. They will employ their own staff, own or lease their land, choose their service providers, and control their own curriculum and teaching methodologies. The new academy schools will have freedoms unknown outside the independent sector and the two sectors will move closer together.

Already some independent schools have assisted with the creation of academy schools by providing advice on governance, curriculum and staffing, and this should be encouraged. A handful have actually sponsored new academies. Many independent schools have valuable expertise to offer state schools, and their co-operation can bring many benefits to both sectors.

Fourth, schools should be given the freedom to select.

If we really believe in giving more autonomy to schools and more freedom to parents, the next Conservative government should allow the creation of selective or partially selective schools where there is local demand for them. We should end the "Henry Ford" approach to school choice, which allows parents to have whatever kind of school they want as long as it's a comprehensive. Michael Gove has sensibly allowed existing grammar schools to expand, but this will benefit only those areas that already have selection. These opportunities should be provided wherever parents want them and should be available within the state sector – not just for those who can afford to pay.

Research shows that academic selection can raise standards in the selective schools and in neighbouring non-selective schools. We now have 40 years of evidence proving that areas with selective schools as a whole tend to perform better. Year after year the best results are achieved in Northern Ireland, Trafford, Buckinghamshire, Redbridge, Sutton and other selective or partly selective areas.

A good start could be made by giving academy schools permission to select (on criteria including academic ability) up to 20% of their intake, and the right to petition the Secretary of State for permission to select an even greater proportion in this way. In addition, once they are up and running, consideration should be given to the trialling of selective Free Schools in some urban areas where existing state provision is most deficient.

Fifth, we should adopt a more flexible approach towards teacher training.

Many of the independent schools that provide such excellent education do so with teaching staff that do not have a PGCE or Qualified Teacher Status. High performing academy schools should have precisely the same flexibility. As in the independent sector, academy schools are the best judges of the kind of initial training, if any, and continuing professional development their staff require.

The challenge now is to have the courage to drive real power down to schools, parents and communities, and to trust them - not Ministers or local councils - to make the best choices for their children. The building blocks will soon be there - per capita direct funding, more academy schools and Free Schools, enterprising heads and teachers, and, of course, parents whose aspirations for their children have been frustrated for far too long. It is time to set them free.


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