"Free schools are set up for two reasons – to help underperforming children or to provide places where there currently are none. The biggest crisis is in London and the south-east, and this is just as much in middle-class areas as deprived ones. These two different motivations are the reason the overall picture looks confused," said Rachel Wolf, director of the New Schools Network (NSN), which advises free school proposers, in the Guardian
Originally, free schools were supposed to provide much-needed places or help the disadvantaged. It now appears that “disadvantaged” has been replaced with “underperforming “. According to Wolf, many free schools are set up to help “underperforming children” so theoretically there should be a higher proportion of struggling pupils admitted to schools allegedly set up to tackle underperformance. It will be interesting, therefore, to discover how many of these free schools take a higher proportion of pupils whose attainment is below-average at the start of key stages 1 and 3 than neighbouring schools.
As it is unknown how many underperforming children are admitted to free schools, perhaps we can gain some insight by looking at whether second wave free schools
are in areas where there’s a high proportion of failing schools. NSN lists* 20 local authorities (LAs) with the highest percentage of Ofsted failed schools at the end of 2011. But second-wave primary free schools were established in only three of these areas. At secondary level, second-wave free schools opened in only three of the 20 LAs.
Perhaps Wolf was thinking of LAs where the proportion of pupils reaching the expected levels at ages 11 and 16 is lower than the national average? Again, NSN lists* such LAs. And again, the vast majority of second-wave free schools were provided in areas outside the 20 LAs where raw results were worst.
So are free schools being provided only in areas with a shortage? NSN lists* 20 LAs where there is an expected shortfall of school places in 2014/15. It should be expected, therefore, that the majority of free schools would be in these areas. But new primary free schools were provided in only four of the primary shortage hotspots (5 primaries in total) and extra secondary places (three schools in total) only appeared in three of the 20 LAs where forecasts showed that extra places would be needed.
But Wolf added a third reason – this time reverting to the seemingly-discarded one: disadvantage. But her first thoughts were not with the pupils. Instead she emphasised the involvement of teachers by saying “passionate teachers want to support the very poorest pupils in communities where results and aspiration have been low for generations.” But the figures above show that most free schools are not opening in areas where results are low and FullFact
found it’s not yet clear whether free schools are benefitting the disadvantaged. Finally, it’s not necessary for “passionate teachers” to take time out from teaching in order to set up free schools to help disadvantaged pupils in low-performing areas – there are thousands of teachers who already do this with no fuss or fanfare.
*NSN lists can be dowloaded here: primary