As we publish our first major piece of research into free schools, Rebecca Montacute, Research Fellow at the Sutton Trust, explores the policy almost a decade on.

Free schools were the flagship education policy of the coalition government when they were first introduced in 2010. The schools were intended to bring new and innovative providers – including parents and teachers – into a more autonomous and self-improving school system, driving up standards through greater school choice and increased competition.

The free school policy is in many ways a continuation of a larger drive towards school autonomy pursued by various governments over the last 20 years, starting with the Labour government’s original academy policy in the early 2000s. Today, as the preferred model of new schools, they remain a key part of government education policy and are likely to continue to play an important role in future years.

Free schools are all-ability schools, funded by the government. They are not run by local authorities and have the same status as academies, with flexibility over decisions such as the length of the school day, and without the requirement to follow the national curriculum.

However, unlike most academies, free schools are unique in having freedom to shape the approach and ethos of a school from the very beginning of a school project. The free school programme aimed to improve school standards by increasing the autonomy of schools, in the hope that this would subsequently boost choice and competition between them.

Although parental involvement was a key element of the free school programme, in our latest report – Free for all? Analysing free schools in England – we found that only one in five free schools have had parents involved in their inception, and the proportion of parent led schools has decreased over time. The number of schools with parental involvement was at its height in the early years of the programme, with parents involved in the set-up of over 40 per cent of the 25 secondary free schools opened between 2011 and 2013, but has dropped to less than 20 per cent between then and 2015. For primary and all-through free schools, the proportion has dropped from 32 per cent to just four per cent (30 schools in total).

Another aim of the free schools policy was to increase the number of schools with innovative approaches to their curriculum or ethos. However, our research finds that only one third of the free schools which have been set up were found to have demonstrated such a novel approach.

Innovators are more common in the primary sector, with 35 per cent of 152 primary free schools which are still open found to be innovative, compared to 29 per cent of 113 open secondary free schools.

But in reality, the free school programme has been a vehicle by which new schools are opened by academy chains, a trend which has increased in recent years. From 2011 to 2013, about half of secondary free schools and just over a quarter of primary and all-through schools were set up by academies. This has increased to almost four in five of the new free schools opened since 2015 (78 per cent of the 37 secondaries and 84 per cent of the 73 primary and all-through schools). Overall, 178 free schools have been set up by academy trusts, over half (59 per cent) of all free schools.

We want to see the government review and clarify the mission of free schools, to ensure that they have a clear and distinctive mission, rather than acting as a default mechanism by which to open new schools.

It’s too early to make definitive claims about the academic success of free schools; schools haven’t been open for long enough to have pupils who have been educated solely by their free school. However at Key Stage 4, pupils at free schools perform slightly better than pupils at other types of school, and disadvantaged pupils in free schools perform the equivalent of a quarter of a grade higher in each subject compared to their peers in other school types. While initial GCSE results at Key Stage 4 are promising, they are still currently based on a relatively small number of pupils.

So are free schools doing anything for social mobility? Our research finds that while they’re often located in areas of disadvantage, both primary and secondary free schools have lower proportions of disadvantaged pupils than their catchment areas. At primary level, 16 per cent of the pupils in the catchment areas of free schools are eligible for free school meals (FSM), but only 13 per cent of pupils attending those schools are eligible. Similarly, 17 per cent of secondary free school pupils are FSM eligible, compared to 19 per cent of pupils in secondary free schools catchment areas.

These figures suggest that free schools are slightly less representative in terms of disadvantaged pupils compared to the communities that they serve. As early evidence suggests that disadvantaged pupils have slightly higher attainment in free schools, it is important that the government ensures free schools are recruiting more disadvantaged pupils, so that they fully reflect the diversity of the communities that they serve.

View the full findings.

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