Since the first free schools opened in 2011, critics have been claiming that they increase social segregation because they cater exclusively to white, middle class, English children. But the EPI report says that free schools have an above average number of non-white children and children whose first language is not English. In addition, it says they are more likely to be set up in the most disadvantaged areas than the least disadvantaged, and, in the case of secondary free schools, have an above average number of children on free school meals.
Another myth is that free schools are set up in areas where they are not needed. In fact, as the report says, free schools have been set up in areas most in need of new places.
Critics say that free schools are getting below-average results. But the EPI report points out that in 2017 students at free schools made above average progress between the ages of 11 and 16, coming joint top of the progress league table alongside academy converters. The report also highlights the success of free schools at Key Stage 1, where pupils are more likely to achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics than any other type of school.
Finally, the report highlights the overall performance of free schools as measured by Ofsted. It says that the proportion of primary free schools rated as Outstanding is nearly double that of other state schools. At secondary, free schools are also more likely to be rated Outstanding than other state schools.
The only part of the report NSN disputes is the claim that free schools are less popular with parents than other types of schools, although EPI does acknowledge that the longer free schools have been open, the more popular they have become. EPI’s methodology, whereby it measures the popularity of a school by seeing what percentage of its overall applicants named the school as their first choice, is a poor metric because it penalises those schools, like free schools, that get a disproportionately high number of overall applications. As a general rule, the more popular a school, i.e. the higher the total number of applications it receives, the lower the percentage of those applicants naming the school as their first choice. This means that popular schools, like free schools, are likely to be ranked as unpopular, according to EPI’s methodology.
A fairer test is to assess how likely a school is to be oversubscribed. This can be measured by how many parents select the school as their first preference, relative to the number of places it has available. By that metric, free schools are more popular than any other type of school. For primary free schools, there are 1.13 first preference applications for every place, compared to a national average of 1, and for secondary free schools it’s 1.12, compared to a national average of 1.
Toby Young, Director of New Schools Network, said: “I welcome this myth-busting report from the Education Policy Institute and endorse its recommendation that we should open more free schools in areas where standards are not high enough. As EPI’s analysis shows, free schools have had a hugely beneficial impact in London and the South East, reducing social segregation and raising standards, particularly for the least well off. We now need to put rocket boosters under the programme in areas where there are not enough good schools.”