David Davis said at the weekend they may not ‘work well in poorer parts of the country’. Sarah Teather said they were a ‘shambles’ and a ‘gimmick’ two weeks before becoming Michael Gove’s schools minister. Last September Lib Dem Conference demanded their MPs oppose them because they increase ‘social divisiveness and inequity in the system.’
With that report card from inside the coalition you can understand why my heart didn’t leap when I discovered three of the first sixteen Free Schools in England were to be ‘awarded’ to Hammersmith & Fulham – one of the smallest education authorities in the country.
Andy Burnham, in his first interview as shadow education secretary, said:
“In a fully free-school world, whose is the voice for the voiceless, for the kids without pushy parents? Who is acting for their best interests? What I’d tell the Toby Youngs of this world is that your choice, well-intentioned as it might be… can undermine someone else’s options and choice.”
While I was MP for Ealing, Acton & Shepherds Bush before the last election, I watched the fulminations of Mr Young in his ultimately fruitless attempt to set up a free school in Acton, which he famously described as “the cesspool of West London”. But Ealing – and Hounslow and Brent – said no. And so, like many other unwanted Tory ideas, the West London Free School has ended up in my backyard.
Backyard is the operative word. There is very little spare land in Hammersmith & Fulham. Five years ago it proved difficult to find a site for the new Hammersmith Academy, despite having all-party support and fitting well into the family of local schools.
But Mr Gove stamped his petulant foot and somewhere had to be found. In fact, two somewheres. The first, the Bryony Centre, was about to undergo an £8million rebuild to provide a new home for Cambridge School for children with severe learning disabilities. This is on the Phoenix School campus in Shepherds Bush, complete with swimming pool, gym and farm under the benevolent eye of Sir William Atkinson. Now Cambridge must wait at least another two years.
Then on to Palingswick House in central Hammersmith, an imposing stately home currently home to 22 local charities all of whom will be thrown out this summer. To rub it in, the free school’s intake will come from a five mile radius, presumably to accommodate its Ealing backers, while charities that have served Hammersmith for 30 years will be evicted.
Hammersmith & Fulham schools lost £200million when Gove cut Building Schools for the Future. Cambridge School lost its £8million funding. Phoenix, one of the most deprived but the most improved school in Britain, lost £20million. How much of that is one Free School getting to salvage Mr Gove’s reputation?