Why Gavin Williamson Is Expanding Free Schools and Technical Education

Under Theresa May, the coalition government’s ambition to create more free schools was quietly dropped. Instead, there was an increasing focus on grammar schools. The former prime minister promised to pump £50 million into creating more places at these schools.

Grammar schools have the potential of launching students’ potential. Despite the UCL’s study published last year which suggests that any extra money should be shifted towards improving secondary education, they are an overwhelming success. In August, Stretford Grammar School achieved some outstanding results, with students achieving A*-B grades in their A-Levels. The UK is renowned for its variety of schools tailored to different pupils, and this country benefits from free choice when it comes to education. That is why Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is right to shift the government’s focus towards free schools and university technical colleges.

Free schools have been met with a mixed reception since their introduction in 2010, but considering it is a new system, there are bound to be some exceptions that betray the original intention behind this concept. The Independent reported on an analysis into government data carried out by the National Union of Teachers which estimated that approximately £138.5 million was wasted on opening 62 free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools that were subsequently closed, partially closed or failed to open at all.

Some critics claim that the schools take poorer pupils away from mainstream education and that there is no evidence they improve standards, despite the expenditure. The National Audit Office produced a report in February 2017 suggesting a place in a free school costs 51 per cent more than one in a secondary school.

Despite this, many free schools have been an overwhelming success. Spectator journalist Toby Young established his own free school called the West London Free School. He is also a former director of the New Schools Network. This year, 51 per cent of the West London Free School’s GCSE grades were at least a level 7 (the equivalent to the old A grade). According to their website, this is a significant improvement from their outstanding results last year. Like any other school, free schools work if they are led by teachers who are passionate about improving children’s lives.

Furthermore, the New Schools Network produced a study which revealed that 31 per cent of free schools have been rated outstanding by Ofsted, whereas the national average is 22 per cent. The controversial Michaela free school, renowned for its strict behavioural policy, was ranked among the best in the country for its GCSE results. More than half (54%) of all grades were level 7 or above.

Technical schools are also proving to be beneficial for many pupils. Although The Guardian reported that the Education Policy Institute argues that pupils at university technical colleges perform poorly, those who are more suited to a career in technical skills must be encouraged to pursue opportunities in this area.

The overwhelming evidence suggests that whilst technical colleges need to improve, they are also necessary. 43 per cent of vacancies in skilled trades were due to skills shortages in 2015. Last year, the Department of Education revealed that those who leave a technical school are more likely to enter an apprenticeship than those who do not.

For Britain’s education system to thrive, the government must invest in schools that will equip pupils with the skills they need to thrive. Labour’s policy in the 2000s of sending most students to university enabled the UK to experience a skills shortage. Every child is different and they should be provided with the chance to embrace their skill set. This is why the Education Secretary should continue to focus on alternative routes to education.