NSN calls on PAC to recognise success of free schools in popularity, performance and cost effectiveness
As the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) convenes to take evidence on schools capital funding, the New Schools Network asks committee members to recognise the success of the free schools policy to date. Free schools are the most cost effective way of creating new school places, they’re popular with parents and are among the highest-performing schools in the country.
The PAC will be considering the recent report by the National Audit Office, which explicitly recognised that on a like for like basis, the construction costs of free schools are 29% lower per square metre than the costs of creating new schools under the Building Schools for the Future programme.
Critics of free schools claim that too many are built in areas where there is no demographic need for additional places. However, the DfE has assessed that 83% of the free schools opened or approved to open since 2013 will provide places to meet demographic need.
While it is true that some places in free schools don’t meet demographic need, without surplus capacity parents wouldn’t have any choice about where to send their children. As the NAO report says, “Some spare capacity is needed to allow parents to exercise choice.”
Of all types of schools, free schools are the single most popular schools. In 2016, secondary free schools attracted an average of 3.6 applicants per place, compared to an average of 2.4 applicants per place in council-run schools.
Furthermore, Bradford Girls Grammar School, a non-selective free school, has been the most popular state secondary in the country for three years running. In 2016, this school received 312 first preferences for a total of 77 places, meaning there were more than four first choice applications for every place.
Not only are they popular with parents, but free schools are also more likely to be ranked ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted compared to the national average. To date, 28% of free schools have been designated ‘Outstanding’. They also come top of the class when it comes to progress and attainment at Key Stages 1 and 5, and are second only to academy converters at Key Stage 4.
At Key Stage 5, free schools have put in a particularly impressive performance. The two specialist maths schools that have opened so far – King’s College London Mathematics School and Exeter Mathematics School – have been astonishingly successful. At King’s, for instance, 94.5% of A level entrants got A*/A/B or above last year, making it one of the top five state schools in England as measured by value added. Fourteen of King’s current Year 13 students have been offered places at Oxbridge, 23% of the year group.
New free schools
As well as paying for more mainstream, SEN and Alternative Provision schools where they are most needed, the new money for free schools made available in the Budget will support the Government’s educational reform programme, helping to get a range of good new schools open, including new selective free schools.
Toby Young, Director of the New Schools Network said:
“Since 2010, the DfE has done a good job of allocating capital funding to ensure there are enough school places to meet the growing demand, address the maintenance of existing schools, and to support the Government’s wider reform agenda.
“The Chancellor’s decision to allocate more money to the free schools programme isn’t surprising, given the success of free schools to date. They are popular with parents, more likely to be ranked ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted and among the highest performing schools in the country. What’s more, as the NAO recognised, free schools are a cost effective way of meeting the demographic need for additional places. We very much hope that the PAC considers these facts in its deliberations.
“The extra funding set out in the Budget will give a turbo boost to the most successful education policy of the last 25 years. NSN has recently set up a Northern office and we would like to see more free schools being set up in cities like Birmingham and Manchester, as well as ‘Opportunity Areas’ like Doncaster and Stoke. This new money will help to make that possible.”