Few Conservative MPs would challenge the view that the coalition’s education policy has been one of its successes. Central to that policy are the 408 free schools that are either open or approved. David Cameron knew he was on safe ground with his party when he recently promised another 500 by 2020.
Free schools, set up by parents, teachers, businesses, universities, religious and voluntary groups and free of local authority control, are funded directly by central government. They do not have to follow the national curriculum or pay teachers according to national pay scales. Is Mr Cameron’s confidence in them justified?
Even their most ardent admirers would acknowledge that these are early days. Just 24 schools opened in September 2011, a further 55 in 2012 and 93 more a year later. At present, the total is 255. Ofsted’s annual report for 2013/14 concluded that it was too early to assess their performance.
However, given the political stakes, others have been less cautious. In March this year, the right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange, published a report addressing critics’ concerns that the establishment of free schools would depress standards in neighbouring schools. Its argument is the same as that made by previous governments that have introduced new types of schools: competition from a good school compels nearby schools to raise their game.
Policy Exchange compared academic standards in the three nearest “similar” schools to 171 free schools and found that academic results in under-performing neighbouring schools improved, though those for high-performing schools went down slightly. The lowest performing primary schools in free school areas also outperformed the national improvement rate for the most deprived schools and among secondaries, an open free school was associated with above national average increases for other secondaries with below average results from 2011 – 14.
The report received widespread coverage in the national media but even its authors acknowledged its limitations. “Sample sizes are quite small and correlation should not be mistaken for causation.” Only nine free schools have GCSE results and seven have A-level results. Moreover, because free schools are newcomers, most students have spent the majority of their education elsewhere.
So what do we know about free schools? Who sets them up and why and who goes to them? Will the Government succeed in raising standards in deprived neighbourhoods through free schools? Rob Higham of University College London’s Institute of Education analysed 135 of 300 proposals for new free schools in 2011 and found that a quarter came from parents and more than a fifth from teachers who aspired to be the head of the new school. Thirteen per cent were from existing private schools who were trying to move into the state sector and 10 per cent from faith groups. In a 2014 paper, Higham noted that some groups who might have set up schools in disadvantaged areas had found it difficult to negotiate the proposal process.
However, further research from the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies at the UCL Institute of Education has found that most free schools are indeed in poorer neighbourhoods. Francis Green, Rebecca Allen and Andrew Jenkins looked at their social composition by analysing pupil intake data for reception and Year 7 for three years up to and including September 2013-14. A slightly higher proportion of pupils in free school neighbourhoods were entitled to free school meals than the national average: 22 per cent compared with 17 at secondary level and 18 compared with 16 for primary.
However, the study also found support for critics’ concerns that the schools will be socially selective. Within the neighbourhood, the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals attending free schools was below the national average: 17.5 per cent for secondary and 31.5 for primary. In primaries, free school pupils also arrived with higher prior attainment, as measured by the foundation stage profile.
Finally, this report said, free schools have emerged most strongly in non-white neighbourhoods and within those neighbourhoods they attract an even higher than average proportion of non-white pupils. As the researchers put it, their intake is “a bit special.”
A view from abroad
So far, the evidence about the impact of free schools in England is very limited. That from other countries is mixed. Sweden has had free schools since the mid 1990s and they educate 10 per cent of 11-16-year-olds. Research shows they are attended by more affluent pupils. A 2010 study by Susanne Wiborg at the UCL Institute of Education showed that while free school pupils were ahead of their peers at the age of 16, the advantage had disappeared by the time they reached 18.
Charter schools, the United States equivalent, have existed since 1991. A study published in 2010 suggested that pupils in New York charter schools made better progress in reading and writing than their peers in other schools. But Stanford University research (2009) found that for 46 per cent of pupils from a similar socio-economic background the type of school made no difference.
Politicians’ earlier attempts to raise standards by introducing new types of schools suggests that the outcome of the free school experiment may be similar. As Ofsted observed in its 2013/14 annual report: “They succeed and fail for broadly the same reasons as all other types of school.”