Do free schools mainly service middle-class parents worried about the “social mix” of local primaries? Or do they appeal to parents attracted by the “trimmings” of an independent school? Or, as education secretary, Michael Gove claims, are they driving social mobility in disadvantaged areas?
Dr Rob Higham
, whose research is summarised in Leadership Focus
, attempted to answer these questions. He scrutinised 226 of the 312 free school proposals made so far and interviewed a sample comprising 50 groups which represented those which the Government originally encouraged to apply (parents, faith groups, teachers, charities but not education institutions such as existing schools or academy chains). This was not easy because the DfE has refused a Freedom of Information
request to publish details of unsuccessful free school proposals.
The research found that a free school application is more likely to succeed if it comes from middle-class professionals proposing academic schools. The applications more likely to be turned down are those which plan vocational schools in the most disadvantaged areas. Higham suggests this is an “unintended consequence” of the Government’s expectation that free schools will succeed in the league table stakes.
Higham also suggests that the free school application process favours professional applicants over those from a non-professional background. Several rejected non-professional applicants felt that an absence of professional people in their group was a factor in their rejection.
Mark Lehan, principal of Bedford Free School, disputes Higham’s findings saying he found “absolutely no difference” in the interest the New Schools Network gave to different groups. However, he did concede that it might have been harder for his group to co-opt people with experience of accounts, planning and so on if he had been a minority ethnic parent.
The research so far suggests that the most likely proposals to succeed are those for traditional academic schools with the trappings of a private school or schools in areas of above average disadvantage which stress high academic achievement.
Higham says his research is “work in progress” and he will continue to investigate both successful and, crucially, rejected free school applications. He also wants to discover what the rejected groups do next – some of those he interviewed told him that they will have to find a Government favoured partner, such as an educational consultancy company or academy chain.