Co-authored with the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), this report takes a snapshot of the free school programme in England, seven years after its establishment. The report looks at the types of school set up, the characteristics of their pupils, and their academic outcomes revealing that free schools are failing to fulfil their original purpose.
Free schools were the flagship education policy of the coalition government when they were first introduced in 2010. They 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.
‘Free for all?’ shows the change in structure of free schools over time, revealing they no longer reflect the government’s original intentions set out in 2010. Over the past three years, free schools have become less innovative, less parent-led, and increasingly set-up by academy chains.
One in five free schools have had parent involvement since inception.
A third of free schools have demonstrated an innovative approach to the curriculum.
13% of pupils at primary free schools are eligible for free school meals.
- The report focused on the 311 open mainstream free schools, excluding UTCs, studio schools, special schools and alternative provision. Only one in five free schools has 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. Of the 37 secondaries established since 2015, this has dropped to less than 20 per cent.
- Only one third of the free schools which have been set up were found to have demonstrated a genuinely innovative approach to their ethos and curriculum. Innovators have been 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.
- 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.
- Free schools have largely been set up in areas with a need for more school places, but some areas have ended up with either more, or less capacity than needed. In earlier years of the free school programme, most primary free schools were opened in areas which had enough school places. However, over time this has shifted, and in later years most new primary free schools have been opened in areas with at least some need.
- Free schools are often located in areas of disadvantage. However, 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.
- Ethnic minority pupils make up a larger proportion of intake pupils in free schools compared to other school types and to their catchment areas. For primary free schools, 51 per cent of intake pupils in their catchment areas are from an ethnic minority, compared to 61 per cent of intake pupils in those schools. Similarly, in secondary free schools, 47 per cent of intake pupils are from ethnic minorities, compared to 45 per cent in their catchment areas.
- It is currently too early to evaluate the key stage 2 results of primary free schools, as schools have not been open for long enough to have pupils who have been educated solely by their free school. 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. However, while initial GCSE results at key stage 4 are promising, they are still currently based on a relatively small number of pupils.
- The government should review and clarify the mission of free schools. The original intention of the free school programme was to encourage parents and teachers to help set up new schools, and to encourage innovation. But the programme has increasingly become the only vehicle for new schools at a time of rising rolls. New free schools should have a clear and distinctive mission.
- The Government should review the relationship between the New Schools Network, regional schools commissioners and multi academy trusts (MATs). Given that free schools are increasingly set up and led by MATs rather than parents and that regional schools commissioners (RSCs) are playing a larger role in advising whether a new free school application should be approved, the government should review the respective roles of the different players in the commissioning process to avoid needless duplication of effort and improve value for public money.
- There should be better co-ordination and clearer lines of responsibility for local school planning. At present, legal responsibilities rest between local authorities, RSCs and the Department for Education, which approves new free schools. The system needs greater clarity and coordination, and better independent arbitration where disputes arise, including over the impact of new free schools on existing successful schools. The Office of the Schools Adjudicator has this role in school admissions. It could be extended to disputes related to the establishment of new free schools.
- Surplus primary capacity should be converted to secondary capacity. Planning assumptions in the past have led to a surfeit of capacity at primary level, but we are soon to face shortages in secondary places as a result of earlier demographic shifts. RSCs should review provision in their regions and where appropriate use some planned sites for primary schools for secondary school facilities.
- Free schools should recruit more disadvantaged pupils. While free schools are frequently located in areas of disadvantage, the evidence is that many do not reflect the communities they serve. As part of the funding agreements for new free schools there should be an expectation that they actively recruit disadvantaged and other underrepresented groups of pupils so that free schools reflect the diversity of their local communities.