Free schools raise standards - not just in the schools themselves, but in the traditional state schools in their neighbourhood. That is according to a new report from the think tank Policy Exchange. And it should come as no surprise. That is exactly what happened in Sweden, after it reformed its education system in 1991 and allowed charities, faiths, voluntary groups and private companies to open schools rather like the UK's free schools.
Schools that are independently run but still supported by taxpayers – and paid by results, basically in proportion to the number of pupils they attract – are better motivated to think more deeply about the education they provide and how they provide it. Despite the fact that free schools are still highly regulated – much more so than their counterparts in Sweden – that is exactly what they do. So they stimulate other, unreformed, schools in two ways. First, they provide a model for what is achievable. Second, local state schools realise that they have to improve if they are to continue to attract pupils and justify their own existence. Simple really.
People make two arguments against free schools. First, they say that they are more selective than other schools and so it is not surprising that they get better results because they get more able pupils from generally better-off, better-educated parents. But look at another country, the United States, with its so-called charter schools. Often, these have been set up in the least promising areas, inner-city areas rife with drugs and violence, where all or nearly all pupils are from generally poor, minority families. The uplift in performance, though, is startling. Many of these schools are set up by parents, or parents and teachers, precisely because the existing government-run schools are do depressingly and young-life-ruiningly dismal. but those concerned local people make their schools secure places to learn, ban drugs and tolerate 'no excuses'. And you know what? The children shine.
The other objection is that free schools in the UK are wasteful because they are often set up in places where there are already spare places in traditional state schools. Indeed: rather like the case in those American cities I have just mentioned. Setting up a new, different, better-motivated school in an area where there are only 'sink' schools is no waste: it is one of the most cost-effective things you could do. Preventing better schools from setting up is rather like preventing better restaurants from opening up when there are still spare tables in the local greasy-spoon.
The government says it will create another 500 free schools. Frankly, we should turn every school in the country into a free school.