London’s booming population is creating a massive demand for new schools. The capital requires 113,000 new school places over the next five years alone – equal to 10 per cent of existing school places.
Part of this demand can be met by expanding existing schools. But hundreds of brand new schools will also be required. This represents an extraordinary opportunity for innovation to drive higher educational standards.
The government has said that these new schools will be academies or “free schools” – self-governing state schools managed by a governing sponsor – and it is essential that the best existing state school managers, and the most promising educational entrepreneurs, are entrusted with the task.
London pioneered the establishment of self-governing academies more than a decade ago, and the best of the initial sponsors are now running large chains of successful schools across the capital and beyond.
The Harris Federation (founded by the businessman Lord Harris) now has 35 academies and free schools, open or planned, and Ark (a City charity) has more than 50. Other powerful academy or free school brands include Oasis, United Learning and the Haberdashers Company, the last two of which span the state and private fee-paying sectors.
The best of these new schools are truly outstanding. Ark’s King Solomon Academy (KSA) off the Edgware Road draws most of its pupils from highly deprived families. In its first two sets of GCSE results, more than 90 per cent of the pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs, including English and Maths.
It ranks as one of the top-performing state schools in the country. The headteacher, aged only 35, started out on the Teach First programme, which recruits high-achieving graduates to teach in challenging schools, and Ark has an outstanding cadre of teachers with good degrees and similarly high aspirations for their pupils.
Read more: Is the government plan to make failing schools academies the best way to drive up standards?
Music is a core part of the curriculum at KSA: all the pupils are taught to sing and all have the chance to learn an instrument. KSA also has longer school days and catch-up programmes to prevent pupils falling behind.
Ark’s primary-level free school in Shepherd’s Bush was the first free school to be rated by Ofsted as “Outstanding”.
Ofsted remarked on its strong leadership, and accelerated progress for pupils receiving the “pupil premium”, disabled pupils and those with special educational needs through targeted support.
The school specialises in mathematics, using methods from Singapore Mathematics, and the performing arts to develop academic and social skills (similar to their fellow Ark school KSA).
The Harris Federation’s Primary Free School in Peckham also achieved an “Outstanding” rating from Ofsted last year.
The school emphasises individualised support. In the final years of primary school, pupils are taught by specialist subject teachers and are given lessons in specialist facilities at nearby Harris Academy Peckham.
Ark, Harris and the best academies and free school chains have a steady stream of students progressing to Russell Group universities. They are engines of social mobility.
London’s state schools at large now perform well above the national average – a transformation from the position 20 years ago when they performed below and many Inner London comprehensives were notoriously bad. One of the worst was Hackney Downs.
On its site now is the brilliant Mossbourne Academy, whose founding headteacher, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is now chief inspector of schools. Sir Michael inspired a generation of hugely ambitious school founders and leaders in the capital, and they are needed now more than ever.