This week New Schools Network released a new video showcasing some of the life-changing work happening in free schools across the country. Although the statistics on free schools demonstrate their national impact, the stories of the people that live and breathe them on a daily basis – students, teachers and parents – are the ones that really matter. Individual stories, such as TJ, a student at Bobby Moore Academy who said: “I never had any aspirations for the future, but as soon as I had my first science lesson here, that changed immediately”; or Alison, whose son Liam is now studying at college after being given a second chance by Everton Free School.
These stories, coupled with the data, show that the achievements of free schools are truly transformative. They are the highest performing schools at Key Stages 1, 4 and 5 and more likely to be rated Outstanding than any other state-funded school. But we cannot stand still and say this is enough when there is much more to be done and many other TJ’s and Alison’s. Across the country there are 1.2 million children in schools not rated Good or Outstanding, including around 490 schools judged as Requires Improvement or Inadequate in every inspection since 2005. We think building at least 100 new free schools a year will help deliver much-needed urgency in tackling these disparities, particularly in those areas where communities have for too long been left behind.
The election arms race on per pupil funding will ease the pressure on schools, but it is not the silver bullet that will solve underperformance.
Too often we have seen free schools limited to geographical pockets of success, yet to break through in certain areas where genuine change is needed the most. There are 25 council areas that are yet to benefit from a new school – 14 of which are right at the top of the deprivation index, while 18 have Progress 8 scores that lag behind the national average. In rural areas, some children are travelling up to 52 minutes to reach their local school, and many parents are left with no choice but to send their child to a failing school.
Class sizes are becoming unmanageable, and it is no surprise that large class sizes are concentrated in areas of underperformance. Out of the top 20 constituencies with the largest increase in class sizes since 2010, 70% were in local authorities that perform below the national average at Key Stage 4 (Progress 8), and at least 10% of the schools in 75% of these constituencies are rated Requires Improvement or Inadequate.
These are the communities that need to be fast-tracked to benefit from new schools, so those families have the same opportunities that have been afforded to other parts of the country. The next Government must commit to opening 100 new schools a year to deliver transformational change in communities that have been left behind.
As well as delivering new schools, the next Government must remove barriers that are hindering schools from opening. One of the biggest barriers for new schools is securing a suitable site. From a survey conducted by NSN, 70% of pre-open and newly opened schools identified finding a site as the biggest challenge. New schools report finding themselves in standoffs with local authorities over finding and securing a site, while in densely populated and inner-city areas, the sparse availability of land makes prioritising a school seemingly unattractive.
Our hope is that all parties will commit to our ask to deliver 100 new free schools each year. Where they exist, they are transforming the lives of pupils that attend them, offering genuine parental choice and innovation to improve outcomes for children in England – but we need more of them.