Sean Coughlan cites today’s research on free schools in an article for the BBC.
Parent groups have only been behind about one in five of the free schools that have been opened, say researchers.
The flagship policy, launched under the coalition government, was meant to bring innovation and more parental choice to schools in England.
But Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, which carried out the free school study, said “very few are fulfilling that original purpose”.
The Department for Education said free schools were raising standards.
The study, from the Sutton Trust social mobility charity and the National Foundation for Educational Research, says new free schools are now much more likely to be created by expanding academy trusts.
The analysis also found:
- At secondary level, pupils at free schools perform slightly better
- They have “largely been set up in areas with a need for more school places”
- Free schools have a higher proportion of ethnic minority pupils compared with other school types in their local catchment areas
- In secondary schools, the over-representation of ethnic minority pupils is driven by faith free schools
- There has been a growth in non-Christian faith schools, such as Muslim, Jewish and Sikh
- They have a slightly lower proportion of disadvantaged pupils, but poorer pupils in free schools do better than their peers in other schools
The report says that if free schools are now very likely to be part of academy chains, with few other distinctive features, there needs to be more clarity about how they are funded and supervised and to make sure they represent “value for public money”.
There had been a presumption that all new schools would have to be free schools.
But this effective monopoly could change, as the Education Secretary Damian Hinds has announced that councils could open new faith schools, classified as “voluntary aided” rather than free.
The next wave of about 35 free schools is going to be directed towards the lowest-performing areas of England, particularly the North East.
Toby Young, founder of the West London Free School, said that even though this might be seen as a critical report, it showed that free schools were serving deprived and ethnic minority pupils.
“Turns out, these schools are not just benefiting middle-class children,” he added.
“But most strikingly of all, the report found that children from deprived backgrounds at free schools do much better than their counterparts at other types of school. To be precise, disadvantaged pupils get higher grades in three out of eight GCSEs.”