Free schools: The debate continues

Written by: Chris Parr | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Secondary free schools seem to be performing well, but remain less likely to be set-up in areas with historic low attainment. Chris Parr looks at the findings of recent research

Since their arrival on the education scene in 2010, free schools have been controversial. While ministers believe they can drive up standards by increasing competition, critics claim that they fuel social segregation and syphon public money away from other underfunded institutions.

For some, the close association of the free school programme with Michael Gove, a perennially unpopular education secretary, is enough to induce negative perceptions.

But with the recent Queen’s Speech confirming that a further 220 free schools are set to be opened by the government, and education secretary Gavin Williamson stating that such schools are “transforming education for children all over the country, wherever they live” (DfE, 2019), it is important to consider the evidence.

Two years ago, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) published its first in-depth analysis of England’s free schools, and found that while they were helping to meet the need for new school places, the programme had been ineffective in targeting areas of low school quality.

“Free schools are more likely to be located in areas of disadvantage, but disadvantaged pupils in these areas are less likely to be admitted than would be expected,” the EPI said at the time, adding that it was “not yet possible to conclude whether free schools are more effective in improving pupil attainment than other schools”.

Then, last month, with the benefit of two additional years’ worth of information, the EPI published an update to its research. It concluded that free schools are failing to target areas of the country where education outcomes are poorest, although they are generally targeting areas in need of extra provision.

The report states: “While free schools are successful in taking on pupils from economically disadvantaged areas, they have failed to reach those areas with historically low educational attainment – such as deprived, White, working class communities – in significant numbers.”

The research observes some significant differences between free school provision at secondary level when compared to primary. Free schools at primary level have succeeded in increasing school places, having added 11 primary places per 1,000 pupils in areas with the greatest demand. However, secondary free schools have only added four places per 1,000 pupils in these areas with high demand, the report finds.

The report adds: “At the same time, secondary free schools have been opened in areas where there is far less demand for school places: free schools have added an extra 15 places per 1,000 pupils in these low demand areas.”

The report also examines whether free schools are successfully targeting areas with a lack of high-quality schools. It found that secondary free schools have failed to reach poor performing areas, with just five places per 1,000 created in the lowest performing areas. Conversely, 18 places per 1,000 pupils have been created in the highest performing areas.

However, while pupil attainment at primary was described as “poor” by the EPI, progress at secondary level was deemed “very good”. In fact, while average pupil attainment in primary free schools is among the lowest of all state-funded schools, at secondary level, pupils in free schools “make the most progress out of all state-funded schools”, the report finds.

Secondary free schools are also more likely to have pupil intakes that are reflective of their communities, unlike those at primary level.
Asked why secondary schools seemed to be faring better on these measures, a spokesperson for the EPI told SecEd that it was “tricky” to explain since there is “a great deal of diversity in terms of the type of schools that are now free schools at primary (level)”.

He continued: “We’ll get a better indication of the performance of primary free schools once we have more schools in which pupils joined the school as a free school from the very beginning – but because many don’t, it’s hard to make claims about the results in this way.

“We need more time for the programme to develop, before we can make a judgement on their results.”

Jon Andrews, deputy head of research at the EPI, said that free schools were “often serving communities that are economically disadvantaged”, but added that “to truly understand their performance, we need a more detailed understanding of these areas”. He continued: “The intakes of high performing free schools are often very different from other schools. If the government’s aim in education is to ‘level-up’ opportunity across the country, then it needs to improve outcomes in areas with entrenched underperformance. These areas have not been well served by the free schools programme.”

David Laws, EPI’s executive chairman, said that despite some notable successes, the free schools programme “seems to have failed to effectively target the parts of England with the worst school performance”.

“While many free schools are located in areas of economic disadvantage, in some of these areas children actually do quite well in school already,” he said. “If additional money is to be allocated to this programme, it needs to have more impact on the truly left behind educational areas of England.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the research was an “important reminder” of the reality behind the government’s free school rhetoric. She said: “It is a disgrace that such a vast amount of money and resources have been poured into the free schools programme, while other schools have been starved of funds and local authorities have been prevented from being able to meet the challenges of growing pupil numbers effectively by opening their own schools.

“Allowing free schools to open where there are already enough school places is completely wrong. It is unfair on existing schools – which as this report shows are frequently very successful in their own right – and creates unnecessary problems for local authorities trying to manage the fall out.”

  • Chris Parr is a freelance journalist.

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