Are free schools achieving their aims?

Written by: Jennifer Garry | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The free school programme is a flagship policy of the Conservative government, but eight years on has it achieved its stated policy aims? Jennifer Garry reports on new research into the free school project

Recent research by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the Sutton Trust found that pupils at secondary free schools perform slightly better compared to similar pupils at other schools.

Although it is still early days for free schools, these initial findings suggest that secondary free schools are doing well in terms of improving pupil performance. However, are they meeting all of their original policy aims?

Free schools were first introduced in 2010 as one of the coalition government’s flagship education policies. The free school programme aimed to bring new and innovative providers, including parents, into a more autonomous and self-improving school system, driving up standards through greater innovation and school choice.

Today there are 113 secondary free schools in England and a further 37 which are all-through free schools. These numbers are expected to continue to rise, with more already in the pipeline.

During the 2017 General Election campaign, the Conservatives also pledged to open 100 free schools in each year of the current Parliament. More recently in May 2018, the government announced that they were looking to open new mainstream free schools in areas that currently have the lowest standards and have a need for additional school places.

As free schools are expected to remain a key part of the government’s education policy in England, we looked at the data to consider whether the existing secondary free schools are having a positive impact on the education system and successfully achieving their original policy aims.

Encouraging parental involvement

One of the original intentions of the free schools programme was to encourage groups of parents to set up schools in their communities.

However, our research found that only one in five secondary free schools opened to date has had parents involved in their inception.

The number of schools with parental involvement was higher in the early years of the programme, with parents involved in the set-up of more than 40 per cent of secondary free schools opened between 2011 and 2013. However, since 2015, this figure has dropped to less than 20 per cent.


Another aim of the free school programme was to increase the number of schools with innovative approaches to their curriculum or ethos. As part of this research, we explored how many secondary free schools opened to date demonstrate such an approach.
We did this by reviewing school prospectuses, websites and other publicly available documentation to identify which free schools demonstrated an innovative concept which was central to their identity and ethos, and widely embedded in the curriculum or school activities. These we classified as innovators.

After carefully reviewing all the secondary free schools, we found that we had classified less than one-third of those opened to date as innovators.

New academy free schools

Since the inception of the free schools programme, many of the new secondary free schools that have opened have had a multi-academy trust (MAT) involved in their creation.

Around half of the secondary free schools set-up between 2011 and 2015 were opened by a MAT. However, this jumped to over three-quarters of secondary free schools opened since 2015. Such schools are less likely to have parent involvement. Nor are they likely to be innovative – our research finds that only 18 per cent of secondary free schools set up by MATs are innovator schools compared with 46 per cent of the non-trust led schools.

It appears that the free school programme has primarily become a vehicle by which new schools are opened by academy chains to increase capacity.

Building capacity

One of the long-standing debates that has been taking place since the free schools programme was introduced is whether they are being set up in the areas where there is a need for more school places.

The report finds that secondary free schools have largely been set up in such areas (See figure 1, below).

While this additional capacity is welcomed, the Department for Education’s (DfE) own forecasts show that an extra half a million secondary school places will be needed in the next 10 years. There is therefore, still much to do to expand capacity to meet this rising demand for places.

Figure 1: Most secondary free schools have been set up in areas with a severe basic need

Improving school performance

Initial signs are that secondary free schools are taking positive steps towards raising pupil performance. We find that pupils in secondary free schools perform slightly better at key stage 4 than pupils with similar characteristics in other mainstream secondary schools. Furthermore, disadvantaged pupils in secondary free schools outperform their peers in other school types by the equivalent of one grade higher in three subjects.

Initial results at key stage 4 are promising but, they are still currently based on a relatively small number of pupils. As time goes on, it will be interesting to observe whether this positive trend in the key stage 4 performance of free schools continues.

What should the role of free schools be in future?

Our research indicates that secondary free schools may not be as unique and innovative as was initially intended.
Instead, the programme is increasingly reflecting the fact that it is the only vehicle for new schools at a time of rising rolls.
As free schools are a continuing area of investment for the government, greater clarity about their purpose would be helpful, and would allow a more full evaluation of whether they are delivering their policy objectives and are value for the investment made.

  • Jennifer Garry is a researcher at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and co-authored the Free For All? report.

Summary: Free For All?

The research – Free For All? Analysing free schools in England, 2018 – was published by NFER and the Sutton Trust in May 2018. It combines secondary data analysis using multiple government datasets and systematic searching to create a typology of free schools in England. Headline findings include:

  • Free schools are not fulfilling their original purpose. Only one-third of free schools set up to date were found to demonstrate a novel approach, while only one in five have had parents involved in their inception. In contrast, the number of free schools which have had MATs involved in their inception has increased. Overall, 178 free schools have been set up by MATs (nearly 60 per cent).
  • Free schools have largely been set up in areas with a need for more school places. Almost all secondary free schools have opened in areas which had insufficient available capacity. Conversely, a number of the earliest primary free schools were opened in areas that had enough capacity. Since 2013/14, most primary free schools have been opened in areas with at least some need.
  • Secondary free school pupils achieve slightly better attainment outcomes. At key stage 4 in 2016/17, they performed slightly better than pupils with similar characteristics at other types of school. Disadvantaged pupils in free schools performed the equivalent of a quarter of a grade higher in each subject compared to their peers with similar characteristics.

The full report by Jen Garry, Chloe Rush, Jude Hillary, Carl Cullinane and Rebecca Montacute is free to download via

NFER Research Insights

This article was published as part of SecEd’s NFER Research Insights series. A free pdf of the latest Research Insights best practice and advisory articles can be downloaded from the supplements page of this website:


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