Parents in Kent are trying to expand the number of Grammar School places in their area using Free School powers, but the application process is stalling as Department of Education Officials ponder their proposals.
The great thing about Free Schools is that they put power into the hands of parents, allowing them to set up new schools in their area. The process is fast and flexible and rightly brings more choice into the state system. It also means that schools are more likely to have parental support, a key component of a successful education.
In the past, the only option that parents had if they weren't happy with their local school was to move catchment area. This option was only open to the few who could afford it and for those living in social housing it was not an option at all. I'm not saying it doesn't happen any more, but it is no longer the only choice.
Parents already scour local schools when looking for the best for their children. And so allowing them to have a say on what schools are on offer in the first place is a natural step. Free schools recognise that parents pay for schools through the tax system and gives them the chance to establish a new school.
Kent is one part of the country where parents are asking for the schools they want to be moved closer to their children. They happen to be grammar schools. They live in a part of the country where there is such a high demand for selective education that 2,600 parents have signed a petition appealing to the Secretary of State to allow existing Grammars to set up satellite buildings in areas closer to pupils. This doesn't herald a dramatic change in policy, it's simply opening up a new building albeit on a different site. If you like, it's a bit like Oxford or Cambridge University opening up a new college, which would still sit under the umbrella of the overall University. Who would object to our most successful Universities expanding in such a way and opening up their excellent education to a greater number of students? So why isn't the same logic being applied in Kent?
The stumbling block is a law change that Labour introduced when in power, which prohibited any new grammar schools being opened. This was done for purely ideological reasons and ignored the success and popularity of existing grammars. The result is that supply has been restricted making it even more difficult for pupils to gain entry. Parents in response employ a host of tactics to help increase their child's chances of success. What is in fact needed are more places and this is what is being pursued in Kent.
I have to express an interest here. I went to one of the 164 grammar schools that are still left in England and like some of the kids in Kent it meant a two-hour round trip by bus every day. From the age of 11, I was at the bus stop at 7:30am every morning and not usually home before 5pm. I still have some great friends from those long journeys, but if the buildings could have been moved closer to where I live, would I have preferred it? Yes of course I would. It would have made a world of difference and opened up a whole host of other opportunities, not least in how I could have spent those two hours every single day.
The frustration for Kent parents is that if a successful comprehensive school had submitted exactly the same proposal, it's likely that it would have received the thumbs up already and been praised for its enterprise. Equally, if a private school wanted to expand for paying students, it too would probably have got the buildings up by now. So why are tax-paying parents wanting grammar school places a bit closer to home having to wait so long?
Clearly, there is a fear that a decision in favour will be subject to a legal challenge. That risk is theoretical and the only way it can be resolved is by allowing the school to press ahead and if necessary changing the law.
In the case of the Kent's grammars there is only one set of views that matter, the parents, who are in the end the taxpayers paying for the school system. As for overturning Labour's ban, although it's not necessary in the Kent case, it is a logical step in the Free Schools policy since it puts more power into the hands of parents to choose the education that is available to their children.