Spreading success: The case for more free schools in areas of disadvantage

On this weeks blog, we look at the accomplishment of the free schools programme in London and outline why now is the time to replicate its success across England.

Before academies were introduced in 2000 through the Learning and Skills Act, London was considered a cold spot for good education provision. However, in the past 20 years the capital has seen the ‘London Effect’ – disadvantaged pupils in London schools outperforming those in the rest of the country. 

London based free schools continue to constitute an extraordinary ‘success story’ of the free school programme. Of 557 open free schools, over 200 are located in the Greater London region, and it’s typically disadvantaged communities benefiting from the concentration of the programme.

This month the London Academy of Excellence (LAE) Stratford, the first 16-19 free school which open in 2014, celebrated a landmark achievement, surpassing 1,000 students going on to study at prestigious Russell Group universities. A remarkable achievement for a school where 100% of pupils are eligible for free school meals.

Reach Academy Feltham is located in Hounslow, a borough with a history of educational underperformance, and just like LAE the school consistently features as one of the top performing in the country. Both Reach and LAE are outliers in assumptions often made about the relationship between socio-economic background and academic performance.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has suggested that a child’s education attainment can be progressed by as much as three months if the school can successfully engage with parents. One contributing factor to Reach Academy Feltham’s success is its work with the carers and families of its pupils. The schools Children’s Hub’ Family Support service team work with parents in need of assistance, offering advice and advocacy for the issues they’re facing. Over the past year alone, the team has supported parents on a range of issues including housing, immigration, substance abuse and domestic violence. 

These schools are shining lights of what the free school policy hoped to achieve at its inception: more Outstanding schools driving up standards in areas of need. Which is why it is so crucial, particularly following the pandemic, that more schools like these are opened across the country, especially in areas of disadvantage with a legacy of educational underperformance.

At the last election the Government promised to level-up areas which have long been forgotten about by policymakers. As various studies have shown recently, the lack of full time education for millions of children in those regions will have a long-term impact on their future prospects. This is not only an injustice to those children, but to the prosperity of the country. The key to levelling-up surely then begins with more Outstanding providers in those regions – just like the ‘London Effect’ has done in recent decades.  

Free schools have a track record of success and delivering for communities, but there are not enough of them for their transformative impact to be felt evenly across England. Future free school waves should prioritise spreading those opportunities, ensuring across all areas of the country, every child can access a good school and no communities are left behind. 

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