Free schools: Time to level up

This week, the NFER published new research commissioned by NSN looking at the impact of free schools over the past 10 years. Our blog this week comes from NSN Director Unity Howard, who reflects on the findings. 

Over a decade ago, New Schools Network started to support groups applying to open free schools. The free schools programme welcomed with open arms parents, teachers, charity groups and other new providers, that aimed to play a part in ensuring their local communities could access high quality education, no matter their background. Fuelled by innovation, the pioneers set up free schools not because they desired to be part of a political agenda, but because they knew real families, real children deserved better.

This year will mark ten years since the first free schools opened their doors. What was once blasted as a pipedream has proved the doubters wrong: with over 550 free schools now open, the statistics speak for themselves. Free schools are more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted, and are the top performing type of state school at GCSE and A level. Many have become national beacons of excellence. Not only bringing new ideas, and higher standards, to local communities but using that expertise to support the schools system as a whole.

But the programme has not been without its challenges. We know securing a site and building can plague an approved free school for many years. Recruiting staff in areas of historic poor performance is hard, as is convincing teachers to join a school that does not yet exist. Headteachers go from being the sole employee of a free school during pre-opening, to managing a busy school and the operational challenges that come with it. The challenges ebb and flow over the years as the school grows. Even with more than 550 open and 200 plus approved and in the pipeline, only a handful opened in the early years, the vast majority are yet to grow to full maturity, continuing to overcome hurdles year-on-year.  

The policy too has faced difficulties. As Brexit then the coronavirus pandemic dominated domestic policy, the appetite for risk and reform has waned. Recent free school waves have seen existing providers replicating provision as the dominant provider and supplying places for ever-increasing demand.

That is why NSN commissioned the NFER to conduct this independent research. To truly reflect, learn lessons. To reignite the programme, policy makers need evidence to set the future direction for free schools – and what is clear from this research is that the programme has indeed been effective. The findings show, without doubt, the impact that free schools have had on local areas, particularly for disadvantaged students.

But as we look forward to the future of the free schools programme, in the midst of a global pandemic severely impacting education, we believe it needs to return to its roots – to focus on improving standards. There are still far too many places in this country where parents have no option but to send their child to a school that has been underperforming for a decade. These areas are concentrated where socio economic disadvantaged is also entrenched. From coastal and rural areas, to countless towns across the north and midlands, these areas are in desperate need of a new school.

The Government’s manifesto pledge to open more free schools will surely see them at the heart of the ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’ agendas waiting to translate into reality. After all, free schools generate higher standards, encourage innovation, and are a key feature of an autonomous education sector. Delivering a new wave of free schools targeted in areas yet to benefit – Knowsley, Grimsby, Blackpool – would see the successes found in the NFER report replicated so the programme sees more brilliantly diverse free schools (like Michaela Community School, Dixons Trinity Academy, XP School, The Boxing Academy, Lighthouse School, King’s Maths School) approved and opened where they are most needed.

The education sector is united by a common endeavour: to make sure children, particularly the most disadvantaged, have equal opportunity to access a good education. Free schools are crucial national infrastructure with the power to achieve just that. The findings in this report illustrate that this is the case. With the fantastic vaccine roll out, the promise of schools re-opening and life returning to normal, now is the time for the Government to commit to ‘levelling up’ in action – a new free school wave in the North and Midlands would do just that.

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