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It’s May 2010 and a sheepish Nick Clegg and smug David Cameron are standing in the garden of 10 Downing Street pledging to unite their parties and “take Britain in a historic new direction”.
Seven years on and it sounds like a scene from a dated mockumentary.
The darlings of the early 2010s have long since been exposed as “out-of-touch liberal metropolitan elites” and brutally banished from Westminster – and the coalition government is a slice of history forgotten by all but the self-flagellating Liberal Democrats.
But in one respect, the coalition legacy lives on. This year’s GCSE and A level results include results from the first wave of free schools, pet project of the 2010 education secretary Michael Gove.
And the figures speak for themselves.
Last week the London Academy of Excellence in the deprived area of Newham got 15 of its pupils into Oxbridge; King’s College Mathematics School, a specialist sixth form college, topped the Times’ A level results table; and 70% of pupils at the Harris Academy in Westminster secured places at Russell Group universities.
These achievements would be remarkable at a top fee-paying school.
Yesterday’s GCSE results were equally impressive. Reach Academy Feltham, a free school that opened in 2012 in one of London’s most deprived areas, saw 96% of its students get grade 4 or above in English and maths (the equivalent of C or above in the old system). 80% also obtained 5 or above in English and 9% got the top grade in maths (grade 9), three times the predicted national level.
In the early days, there were those who argued that only middle class children would benefit from free schools, because it would only be middle class parents in middle class areas who had the time to set them up. This flimsy theory has now been categorically proved wrong.
I’ve visited my own local free school and so none of this comes as a surprise to me. At the Bolingbroke Academy in South London, every rule and policy is designed to get the very best out of the students. Lunch time, for example, is family dining time where pupils and teachers sit on round tables of eight and take turns serving each other meals. It may sound like a twee concept dreamt up by a naïve student teacher, but thanks to the energy and determination of the staff, it works.
One girl, who I later discovered had been in care all her life and had never sat down for a family meal before starting school, was shocked when I explained to her that at my old school, pupils just grabbed a sandwich from the cafeteria. To her, the idea of anything but family dining at lunch time was barbaric.
Free schools work because the people on the ground understand best what the children of their community can achieve. Local authority state schools all too often make excuses for their children, unwittingly undermining their potential. Instead of saying “we’ll make allowances because this girl comes from a lower socio-economic background than this student” free schools say “these are our standards, we will work around the clock to make sure everyone, from every background, can reach them”.
There is now no getting around it (however hard the belligerent NUT will try): free schools produce excellent results because they are excellent schools.