“the primary factor in decision making has been opening schools at pace, rather than maximising value for money”.

Surely it was wrong to put ideology before evidence-based education policy.

The shadow Secretary of State picked up on that in highlighting the deficiencies now emerging from the Swedish system, which saw a radical expansion of free schools, accounting for a quarter of all pupils by 2013. This seems to have come at a great cost for those pupils, as Sweden saw a massive drop in standards during this period. In 2003, Sweden was ranked 17th in the global league table for mathematics; now it is ranked 38th. I hope that the Department is keeping a good check on what is happening to overall standards for schools such as Durham free school.

I regret the accusation that some of us are turning this into a political issue. That is not the case. I want a rational debate about the school’s future. When parents approached me in 2011-12 for support to set up the free school, I did what I think was the right thing and pointed them to the Department so that they could get the information and support they needed. I do not know whether that happened in practice. What I do know is that when things go wrong, we need decisive action. I know that the local authority is trying to work with the school and with parents by offering alternative places. It is interesting that we always expect local authorities to step in and sort out problems; perhaps we should consider giving them a much bigger role in the management of all schools.

The main thing that I wanted to do this evening was put my concerns on record. I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say about how they will be

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addressed, but I hope that, before he speaks, I can crave the indulgence of the House and allow my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) a few minutes in which to comment on the issue from the point of view of the Education Committee.

7.15 pm

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): I shall speak very briefly. My main purpose is to thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for the decisive and swift action that they have taken in this case.

I have been raising issues relating to Durham free school with the Department for Education, and with its former Secretary of State, for several years, both in the Education Committee and in the Chamber. I find it disappointing that the former Secretary of State chose not to take action, and that, until very recently, he was praising a school which—let us not forget—has failed and has been found to be inadequate in every respect, including safeguarding. That is why I am so grateful for the swift action that has—finally—been taken.

I consistently raised the financial and educational questions that surrounded the opening of a free school in a city where there was already a sufficiency of both surplus places and good and outstanding schools. I said many times, “You cannot spit in Durham city without hitting an outstanding school.” There were surplus places in that city, and I could not understand the reasoning behind the setting up of another school. I also consistently raised the fact that the school had never been more than half full in years 7 and 8, that the cost per pupil was therefore in excess of £80,000, and that applications to Durham county council for places in other schools from the parents of existing pupils had been regular and even excessive since the day on which the free school had opened in September 2013.

However, my real concerns—I raised them with the Secretary of State in, I think, November, which is why I think that progress has been swift—related to staffing at the school. There are good teachers there who will find it difficult to secure alternative employment, and I am sorry for that. However, as a former senior education officer in the north-east, I was aware that there were very high levels of teachers working at Durham free school that I knew had already undergone competency procedures with other local authorities. A head teacher in the region told me that the school had become a haven for every crap teacher in the north-east. I am sorry if that is unparliamentary language, but that was what he said.

I am concerned about the £4 million that the school has cost in 15 months. I am concerned about the negative impact that the school has had not only on its own intake, but on all the other schools in the City of Durham. I remind Members that it was judged to be inadequate in every respect. Those children have lost 15 months of their education that they will never get back, and for that reason I am extremely grateful for the actions that the Minister has taken. This has gone on for too long, and I am pleased that he has pulled the funding agreement to ensure that it goes on no longer.

7.18 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on securing

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this important debate. I know that, as a Member of Parliament and as a governor at Durham Johnston school, she is a passionate advocate for education in her constituency, and I also know that she has been concerned about Durham free school for some time.

We all agree that every parent should be able to choose a good local school for their child, and we are committed to giving parents a genuine choice between high-quality schools. Pupils and parents are let down when local schools are not of the highest quality, and we must act quickly and decisively when schools fail. That is precisely what we have done in the case of Durham free school.

There are currently 255 open free schools. Of those that have been inspected, more than two thirds have been rated good or outstanding and nearly a quarter have been rated outstanding, just three years after the first free school opened its doors to pupils. More than 100 free schools are in the pre-opening phase, and are due to open in 2015 and beyond. Once full, all open and approved free schools will provide 200,000 pupil places. Free schools have introduced new ideas and approaches to the school system. Schools such as Dixons Trinity academy in Bradford, Harris primary free school, Peckham, and Perry Beeches in Birmingham have been ranked outstanding by Ofsted less than two years after opening. They also give parents and local people a say in the type of education they want for their children, and they are helping to raise academic standards. Free schools also bring diversity into the system. Charities, universities, businesses, and teachers and parents have all opened free schools, and they are having a positive impact on the educational landscape.

Mr Kevan Jones: The Minister mentions choice. In Durham there is choice. There is the very good St Leonard’s Catholic school, there is a choice of very good secondary schools, and a good proposal was put forward for an academy backed by the local FE college. This Government cancelled that. We should have added to the choice, instead of taking the ideological step of introducing this free school, which was not needed in the area.

Mr Gibb: The hon. Gentleman says that, but the local community in Bowburn says differently, and that is why it got together and formed a committee to open the free school.

Prior to opening, all free schools undergo a rigorous assessment and Durham free school was no exception, but the real test of a school’s effectiveness comes when the school is open. The leadership and governance of the school must be strong. The standard of education must be high and sustainable to realise the promises made as the school prepared to open. A key strength of the free schools programme is that we can act swiftly and decisively where we find schools that are not performing well. We closed Discovery new school within six months of an Ofsted monitoring inspection showing that insufficient progress was being made. Since then we have reviewed our funding agreements with proposers, improving our ability to act without delay.

The Government have a zero-tolerance approach to under-performance in our schools, which is why the Secretary of State took the decision last week to issue a

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notice of her intention to terminate Durham free school’s funding agreement just three months after receiving notification of the initial concerns.

Alex Cunningham: I welcome that decisive action, but Durham free school was receiving its bursary services from Grindon Hall Christian school, which itself has just been found to be in special measures. What measures will the Minister take to make sure all these free schools and academies—and everything else, for that matter—have appropriate financial systems and support and that we do not have one poor school trying to provide services to another?

Mr Gibb: We want collaboration between schools as part of a school-led autonomous system, but we now have very strong financial controls through the Education Funding Agency, and they are stronger in academies than any maintained school, with annual reports that are audited and very detailed academy financial handbooks that academies have to adhere to.

Durham free school is a mixed 11-19 secondary school with a Christian ethos. It has an overall capacity of 630. It opened in September 2013 with 31 pupils. It currently has 92 year 7 and 8 pupils on roll, out of 120 available places.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: What assessment was made before the school was opened of its ability to meet the numbers that would be required to make it a good and stable school going forward? It has consistently failed to attract the numbers of students that would be necessary, so we have had a situation of, first, 30 children in one year and then the combined two years of 90 children in a school that was built to cater for 700 or 800 students.

Mr Gibb: It is a common feature of free schools that they do not often fill their places in the first year, but they generally increase their numbers in their second and third years. That is what we expected to happen with this school, but of course it did not happen because of the problems identified by the Ofsted report.

The vision of Durham free school came from a community who wanted a local secondary school for their children in the Bowburn area, south-east of Durham. Closures of schools in the south and south-east of Durham had left people concerned about the distances that their children were required to travel to school.

Before they are allowed to open, free school proposers receive a significant period of support and challenge from departmental officials. As with all free schools, the initial Durham free school proposal was assessed against rigorous published criteria, including a compelling vision and ethos, a detailed education plan, strong governance arrangements, robust evidence of demand, and clear financial plans. The proposers then enter a pre-opening period where groups such as the proposers of Durham free school are supported by officials and education advisers as they develop their governance and education plans, recruit pupils, consult the local community and work towards signing a funding agreement with the Department.

We make it clear that we expect to see a strong governing body to ensure that the governors have both the skills and the experience to deliver high academic standards. At the point of opening, the Durham free

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school governing body consisted of an existing head teacher, a retired head teacher and a number of highly qualified professionals. A strong and effective governing body is a crucial element in the success of any educational institution. In this case, we were satisfied that the governance structure had the capability to deliver an outstanding education to its pupils.

The school had 31 pupils for 60 places at opening, as the hon. Lady said. That is undoubtedly below the level we would have wished for, but new schools can take time to establish their reputation and build up their roll. The school opened on a temporary site in Gilesgate—just spitting distance from where I lived during my three years at Durham university—because of the difficulties in finding a permanent site in the trust’s preferred location.

The trust was able to demonstrate that the school could be viable in the first year of opening due to the way in which school funding is allocated in Durham. It is not uncommon for free schools to increase pupil recruitment significantly during the first year of opening and whilst in a temporary site. Our experience of the free schools programme is that schools often recruit far better in year 2, which was the case at both Rimon Jewish school and Harpenden free school, where recruitment in year 2 was almost 30% more than in year 1.

The proposer group also produced a detailed education plan which demonstrated a clear and coherent vision, focusing not only on academic success but on transforming the local area and increasing the aspirations of all its pupils. At the time of opening, Ministers agreed that the educational plan, together with a secured temporary site and the intention of finding a permanent site in Bowburn, made a strong case to proceed to opening the school.

The school opened in September 2013, and early indications from the Department’s education adviser were that it had made a positive start in delivering the education plan and was making good use of other local schools. Disappointingly, that positive start was not sustained. The recent Ofsted report clearly states that pupil aspiration is low and is not challenged by the school leadership. It shows that teaching is inadequate and consequently that pupil achievement is weak. The school has a number of other significant issues, which is why the Secretary of State took the difficult decision to issue the trust with a notice of our intention to terminate the funding agreement. I would like to address some of those issues today.

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The school’s temporary location on the site of the former Gilesgate school in Durham was not the preferred location. Extensive site searches have been undertaken in the trust’s area of choice in Bowburn, which, as the hon. Lady will know, is largely made up of agricultural and residential land. We have already seen that many free schools can offer high quality education in sites that were not their original choice, and that that has not affected the quality of education, so we do not accept that as a reason for the poor judgments given in the Ofsted report.

The school has since received per-pupil funding at the same rate as all other state-funded schools in the local authority and, as a new school, received an additional £196,000 to defray the additional set-up costs and overheads while pupil numbers were growing. The Department spent £303,000 in capital funding, a large proportion of which was spent on construction, furniture, fittings, other equipment and ICT.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: It has been extraordinarily difficult to get information about the total funding the school has obtained over the two years of its existence. How can I easily get that information?

Mr Gibb: I am very happy to supply the hon. Lady with that information. Revenue and capital, in additional to the per-pupil funding, amounts to about £840,000, but I will write to her with the precise figure.

The Department received a number of worrying allegations about Durham free school’s governance in October 2014, 13 months after it opened. We acted swiftly to investigate the claims. The Education Funding Agency undertook an urgent review in November, which identified serious breaches of the academies financial handbook. Those included concerns about the governing body, the completion of Disclosure and Barring Service checks, and the robustness of the school’s financial management. As a consequence, the school was issued with a financial notice to improve on 24 November, and the Secretary of State asked Ofsted to conduct a no-notice section 5 inspection, which took place in November.

We acted swiftly, and the hon. Lady will know that we take action whenever we see underperformance in our schools system.

Question put and agreed to.

7.30 pm

House adjourned.