Toby Young: Free schools aren’t empty, it’s just bad press

Writing in the Guardian, co-founder of the West London Free School Toby Young argues that, contrary to recent reports, free schools are thriving, but says all the sensational headlines are detracting from what he believes we really need – a mature debate about Gove’s education policies…

The Independent’s splash on Friday, the scandal of the empty free schools, left me a little confused. The headline in the paper version claimed that 70% of free schools are “empty”. But even the most avid opponent of Michael Gove’s education reforms must have realised that couldn’t possibly be true.

It turned out that the paper was using the word “empty” as a synonym for “not fully subscribed”, a rather less sensational claim. Indeed, 80% of all state schools in England aren’t fully subscribed, so according to the same logic, four out of five schools in England are “empty” too.

Even allowing for the hyperbole, the article was odd. The story was supposedly based on new research published by the Labour Party, but in fact it was based on a National Audit Office report on free schools published last December. If you read the executive summary of that report, it was generally favourable. And in almost every particular, the Independent’s version of that report – or rather, the Independent’s unquestioning regurgitation of the Labour Party’s version – was wrong…

Another “fact” revealed by the Labour Party’s analysis is that “two-thirds of free school places were not in an area in most need of primary school places”. In fact, the report says: “Around 70% of estimated primary and secondary places from open or approved free schools are in districts forecasting some need for places.”

The paper then goes on to quote Kevin Brennan – Tristram Hunt’s number two and, presumably, the author of the Labour Party’s new research – blaming “the crisis in primary school places” on the fact that the government has chosen “to open free schools in areas where there are already enough places”.

As “factual” claims go, that one really takes the biscuit. 174 free schools have been set up so far, of which about 50 are in areas where there’s no need for more places. If the money spent on setting up those 50 schools had been spent on new primaries instead, you’d barely make a dent in the shortage of places. And that shortage is almost entirely due to the fact that the last government cut 200,000 primary school places.

As the general election approaches, it would be good to have a proper, grown up debate about Michael Gove’s education policies. (If you’re interested in the case for free schools, see this piece I wrote for Standpoint.) Unfortunately, so much misinformation is put out by the teaching unions and their allies in the Labour Party, that’s going to be virtually impossible…

More at: Free schools aren’t empty, it’s just bad press

Fair response from Toby Young to the recent claims from the Labour Party that appeared in the press? Do you have a different perspective? Either way, please let us know in the comments or via twitter…

Top doctor slams schools policy for fuelling epidemic of child obesity
Free schools damaged by lack of 'joined-up' government thinking, warns sponsor
Categories: Free Schools.


  1. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove Very little reported by media regarding education isn’t totally misleading, just that toadmeister doesn’t agree with this

  2. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove Rich that toadmeister is calling for mature debate regarding Gove’s policy implementation having read some of his offerings

  3. VictoriaJaquiss

    g56g Yes, Toby, a good grown up discussion re education wud be good idea and then we get 2 throw out Gove and all his so-called policies.

Let us know what you think...