NSN launches 'Free schools: the next 10 years'

As New Schools Network celebrates its 10th anniversary, 'Free schools: the next 10 years' outlines seven recommendations to reinvigorate the policy.

NSN is today calling on the Department for Education to allow parents and community groups who are running successful free schools to be allowed to take over other schools that are currently failing their pupils.

There are 92 schools that have been rated as inadequate and are awaiting a suitable academy sponsor to take them on. This means work needed to turn around the school isn’t happening, with an estimated 35,000 pupils left languishing in schools waiting for new management. Around a third of these have become “untouchable”, with no sponsor willing to take them on for over a year. 

NSN has welcomed the commitment from the two leadership candidates to invest more funding in schools,  but funding alone will not be enough to spread educational opportunity without accompanying reform.

The proposal is one of seven steps to reform to reinvigorate the free school policy contained in NSN’s report: Free schools: the next 10 years.

The report analyses the impact free schools have had to date and puts forward seven recommendations to reinvigorate the policy. As well as allowing successful parent led free schools to sponsor failing schools that others have turned their backs on, the charity has called for:

  • 100 free schools to be opened a year
  • Expansion of the free school policy to all areas of the country
  • More community groups to be involved with the programme
  • Legislation to remove barriers to new free schools
  • Small, innovative trusts encouraged to grow
  • Investment in a new wave of specialist alternative provision free schools

A central plank of the proposed reforms would see more new sponsors being approved, including single school trusts and existing free schools. These new sponsors – including parent-led free schools – would come to the rescue of failing schools, where the Government has failed to attract a sponsor. 

In total, 92 schools have, in effect, been abandoned and left without a sponsor – all of which have received the lowest possible Ofsted grade. In total, there are estimated to be more than 35,000 pupils spread across these failing schools. What’s more, 31 of these schools are “untouchable” – having remained unsponsored for at least 12 months. This means more than 13,000 pupils have lost at least a year of their education.

These proposals will put communities back at the heart of the sponsorship process currently under the control of unelected Regional Schools Commissioners.  NSN is proposing a reform of the free schools policy to allow a route whereby, as well as setting up new schools, applicants could instead propose to sponsor one of these schools, bringing in their new vision and fresh management. They would receive financial incentives for doing so. Applicants would be tested on their vision for the school, the curriculum offer, plans to improve leadership, previous educational experience, financial evidence and community engagement. 

Luke Tryl, Director, New Schools Network, said:

“For three years much of domestic policy has stagnated as Brexit has dominated the headlines, as a result, the vital work to improve education and life chances has stalled. While we welcome the pledges from both Conservative leadership candidates to invest more in the education system, simply throwing more money at underperforming schools isn’t enough. That has been tried time and time again. What’s needed is something new that free schools can bring.

"Free schools play a key role in transforming education across the country and so we need the next Government, whether led by Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt to commit to a wholescale expansion of this policy, both to establish new schools in areas that desperately need them and to support struggling ‘orphan’ schools that have been left to struggle by themselves. 

“That tens of thousands of pupils have been left to languish in schools deemed in need of new leadership, and that 13,000 have been stuck in such schools for more than a year is a scandal. It’s clear given the lack of financial support and positive incentives, existing schools are simply unable to support these untouchable orphan schools. Something different is needed, and our report provides an answer, both to turnaround failing schools and re-empower communities with a stake in their children’s educations.”

Click here to read Free schools: the next 10 years. 

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