‘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