Free schools have ‘largely’ met need for more places but they’re not as innovative as expected, research shows

Janet Downs's picture

‘Free schools have largely been set up in areas with a need for more school places,’ research* from NFER and Sutton Trust shows.    It’s good news that free schools have ‘largely’ met a need for extra capacity.  But ‘largely’ suggests some free schools have been set up where they weren’t needed.  Researchers confirmed this: ‘some areas have ended up with either more, or less capacity than needed.’

This is not wise planning.  Excess capacity was highlighted by the National Audit Office in 2017:

 ‘…spare places in 52 free schools opening in 2015 could have a moderate or high impact on the funding of any of 282 neighbouring schools.’  

It’s not know whether any free schools opening in 2016 and 2017 have a similarly adverse effect.  The Department for Education (DfE) hasn’t published their impact assessments.

Other findings (author’s comments in brackets):

Ethnic minority pupils make up a larger proportion of intake pupils in free schools compared to other school types and to their catchment areas.’  (This indicates free schools are particularly popular with ethnic minority parents.   This could partly be explained by the ‘substantial increase in non-Christian faith schools, particularly Muslim, Jewish and Sikh schools’.)

Free schools are often located in areas of disadvantage.  Despite this, free schools have ‘lower proportions of disadvantaged pupils than their catchment areas’.

Parental involvement in establishing free schools has declined.  (This is hardly surprising, given the hard work and expertise involved.  But the ability of parents to open new schools was a key - and much-hyped - strategy in the Schools White Paper 2010. )

Multi-academy trusts (MATs) have used the free school programme as a ‘vehicle’ to open new schools.   59% of all free schools have been established by MATs.

Too few primary free schools have entered pupils for Key Stage 2 SATs.  It’s too early, therefore, to judge their performance against other types of schools.    GCSE results are ‘promising’. (While it’s true to say the average Progress 8 (P8) score for free schools was the highest of all types of school, it’s also true to say 20% of free schools entering pupils for GCSE were below the P8 floor standard in 2017.  But both statements, while true, are misleading because there are too few free schools which have entered pupils for GCSEs.)  

Only one third of established free schools ‘demonstrated a genuinely innovative approach’.  (Innovation, the Schools White Paper 2010 said, would be encouraged by allowing ‘new providers’ to open schools.  This would galvanise improvement.  David Cameron wanted free schools to be ‘the shock troops of innovation’ which would ‘smash through complacency.’  ‘  In reality, however, two-thirds of free schools are not innovative.   This is hardly surprising.    Despite all the hype about ‘innovation’, research as long ago as 2012 said proposals for free schools were most likely to succeed if they were ‘traditional academic schools with the trappings of a private school or schools in areas of above average disadvantage which stress high academic achievement.’    

* The report focused on the 311 open mainstream free schools, excluding UTCs, studio schools, special schools and alternative provision

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agov's picture
Fri, 01/06/2018 - 08:19

Given that virtually all new schools are now required to be called free schools, and that areas of rising population are likely to need new schools, it isn't particularly surprising that free schools meet a demand for new places.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 01/06/2018 - 12:53

agov - you're right that new schools meeting a need for places will now be free school.  But that hasn't always been the case as the NAO noted in December 2013 when it said 81% of secondary free schools were not in areas of need while 87% of primary free schools were.   But that was five years ago.  The NFER/Sutton Trust research found the situation has now reversed.

But some free schools are still being set up where they're not needed while areas which need new schools are missing out.  We don't know how many are in areas of need/no need because the DfE hasn't published impact assessments for free schools opened in 2016 or 2017.  Common sense would dictate that these impact assessments should be published before a free school was given approval so that local schools, parents and other local groups could assess the impact on nearby schools.   But common sense is in short supply at the DfE and its lackey, the New Schools Network.

agov's picture
Sat, 02/06/2018 - 08:41

What is also unknown, at least to me, is the total number of new schools opened 2010-15 and since the 'all must be "free"' policy announced at the 2015 general election. Certainly locally it would seem that almost all of them have been since 2015 - perhaps not surprising given that planning applications, decision making and new build can be a fairly lengthy process.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 02/06/2018 - 09:26

agov - a list of all free schools opened can be downloaded here.     This is a complete list including mainstream, special, APUs and UTCs/studio schools.

The report above was about mainstream free schools only.  If you 'enable editing', you'll be able to select mainstream free schools only.  The report above looked at 311 free schools. 

To find out how many mainstream free schools were opened in 2016 and 2017, you can select 'mainstream' and select the years you want.  I made it 73 but counting all the lines made by eyes swivel.  What we don't know, of course, is the impact, negative or otherwise, on nearby schools because the DfE hasn't published the impact assessments (as I keep banging on about).

According to a DfE press release, As of September 2017, there are 473 open free schools, studio schools and university technical colleges. 504 free schools, UTCs, and studio schools have opened since 2011 and up to September 2017.   Note the difference between 473 and 504 - these indicate closure of free schools/UTCs etc which have already been closed.  Note also that the press release was reissued after UKSA criticised the first one.  I wrote about it here

You can also download a list of free schools in the pipeline.  There's no guarantee these will eventually open.

agov's picture
Sun, 03/06/2018 - 09:45

Thanks Janet.

It's a little confusing as it says 'open' but must mean 'opened'. Initially I made the same mistake as you and counted the lines. Then I realised that once you use a filter (such as 'mainstream') the green row at the bottom of the screen tells you how many lines there were. So that gives 2011: 23, 2012: 45, 2013: 75, 2014: 65, 2015: 40, 2016: 35, 2017: 37, 2018: 1 for a total of 321 opened (and another 244 mainstream free schools in the pipeline).

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 04/06/2018 - 08:55

agov - thanks for alerting me to the green row.  It will save me a lot of inaccurate line counting (and blurry eyes).  It's interesting that the DfE includes UTCs/Studio schools in its figures when citing how many free schools have opened (and often ignoring those free schools/UTCs etc which have already closed).  However, when discussing results, UTCs/Studio schools are left out.  

Why would that be, I wonder.  Because results are UTCs/Studio schools would reduce headline figures about exam results considerably.  Fortunately, UKSA is on to that sleight of hand but it's worth remembering the next time the DfE and its lackey the New Schools Network boast about free school results.

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