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Mark Lehain: Today is the Bedford Free School's first birthday – we have all learned so much

Lehain MarkMark Lehain is the founder and Principal of Bedford Free School.

Today marks two very important anniversaries for Bedford Free School. It isn’t only a year to the day since we opened our doors to our first students, it is also exactly three years since our project was on the list of the first 16 free schools approved by Michael Gove .

Last September we opened with two year groups and nearly 200 students, and yesterday we grew to four year groups and just under 400 students. We had a phenomenally successful first year of operation: all 200 places filled, a strong staff body, excellent feedback from students and their families and, perhaps most importantly, incredible academic progress: on average our students made 2 years’ progress in maths and English in just 10 months.

And all of this took place against an extremely hostile local political backdrop and a planning permission dispute that dragged on and on and on, until it was eventually resolved in our favour.

As I reflect upon how the last three years have been, both for free schools in general and my school in particular, a number of key observations jump out at me.

First of all, how much the political controversy around free schools has faded away. I remember clearly the uproar from teaching unions, anti-academies campaigners and others when the policy was announced, and how nasty some of the campaigns run against free school groups in the early days were.

We faced some pretty vindictive campaigning ourselves – and it’s only now with a bit of distance that I appreciate how much that took out of those involved, especially my family.

Most of the people who opposed us did so for genuine, principled reasons – and I have complete respect for them. We are a democracy after all, and education is a legitimate topic for debate. A minority though crossed the line, and I will never forget the pain and distress they caused to those close to me.

On our first morning last year, it felt like there were as many journalists as students outside the school; as we opened for year two yesterday we couldn’t get any press interest in the fact that we’d doubled in size and are doing so well.

And think back to when the latest batch of projects were approved. Very little response, other than from the usual lines from the automatons at the unions. Which leads me on to my second observation.

The reasons used now to oppose free schools have changed. Initially much was made of the dangers of schools being set up that were in charge of their own destiny, outside of council control, and responding to specific local parental demand.

It was telling that the limited sniping with the 2014 free school announcement focused not on whether free schools were a good idea, but whether they were in the right place . This says to me that the argument against academies – and free schools are just brand new academies – has been won, leaving opponents now just to snipe at where they open and the specific types of education they offer.

Which leads to my third observation. There can be no doubt that the setup and support for processing new bids is far smoother and more streamlined than that which we pioneers faced back in 2010. However, there is still debate around where free schools have opened, and where they are allowed to open in the future. In an age of limited government funds this seems completely reasonable.

I am a believer in parental choice, and this can only happen in an environment where there is both a surplus of school places and the ongoing possibility of new entrants coming into an area. Free schools allow this to happen in a very focused, effective and lower-cost fashion (think of the millions that are saved from campaign and project management costs alone as volunteers develop business cases).

Free school sceptics argue that new projects should only be approved in areas with a shortage of places. I understand their reasons for this – I would just plead that we don’t lose sight of what is, I believe, the most powerful argument for the policy bar none: its impact on innovation and standards.

I am confident that as time passes and the number of free schools grows, we will see an innovation effect, both within the new schools and existing schools, as they have to start responding more to parents’ demands. For the same reason it should also lead to a greater focus on standards.

However, this can only happen if free schools can open anywhere that parents – and not politicians – desire them.

A final thought occurs to me as a write this: what would happen to free schools under a different government? On a personal level, having been through all we have to set up an independent state school, I don’t really want to end up the Principal of a council-controlled school in September 2015. I am watching policy developments across the political spectrum with great interest.

So in three years free schools have come a long way – the policy and supporting procedures have grown up! The declining interest from sceptics and the press is a symptom of the successes so far. The hard work of providing outstanding education to all the students in these schools – and working with surrounding schools to support and learn from them too – is what really matters now, and that is what all free schoolers now have to focus on.


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