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.
- 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.