Next steps for the free schools programme

At the Westminster Education Forum’s recent seminar on England’s school system, NSN Director Unity Howard set out the organisation’s priorities for the future of the free schools programme. External Relations Executive Sophia Purdy-Moore highlights the key points raised during the session.

When it was introduced in 2010, the free schools programme was designed to empower parents, teachers, charities and businesses to revitalise communities and deliver educational opportunity for young people. Where they exist, new schools are offering parental choice and innovation, and delivering positive outcomes for the children who attend them. However, academy and free school reforms have stagnated in recent years, and NSN believes that the sector is in need of reinvigoration. Looking to the future, the organisation seeks to restore the founding vision of the free schools policy to ensure it works for everyone.

Unity explained that to deliver this, it is necessary to expand the free schools policy to parts of the country that are yet to benefit from a new school, targeting the most disadvantaged communities. 1.2 million pupils are currently attending schools which are not rated Good or Outstanding by Oftsed. Around 490 schools have been judged Requires Improvement or Inadequate in every Ofsted inspection since 2005, and in 2017 over 10,000 new places were created in schools rated either Inadequate or Requires Improvement.

14 of the 25 local authorities that are yet to benefit from a new school are in the top 25% of the Deprivation Index, and 18 have Progress 8 scores far below the national average. Disadvantaged families are being priced out of good schools - houses in a catchment area of an Outstanding school could be up to 40% more expensive than a similar property in the catchment area of an Inadequate school. These factors are conspiring to lock disadvantaged pupils out of educational opportunity. Unity argued that to deliver real change nationwide, free schools must be targeted in the areas they are needed most – in communities that have been left behind, with high levels of socio-economic deprivation and educational underperformance.

NSN is also keen for innovation to be restored as a key principle of the free schools programme. Unity highlighted the success of a diverse range of innovative free schools – from East London Arts and Music (ELAM) which focuses on music and the creative arts with the aim of increasing the number of disadvantaged young people entering the music industry, to London Academy of Excellence (LAE) which focuses on getting pupils into Russell Group universities and where this year, 93% of A-level students achieved grades A*-B. While she praised the success of innovative specialist post-16 maths schools which are giving new opportunities to talented young mathematicians from disadvantaged backgrounds, Unity noted that successful free schools such as Michaela Community School and XP would be unlikely to meet the DfE’s criteria today. Based on the successes of these innovative, community-led free schools, NSN wants the DfE to allow for a more diverse pool of free school applicants going forward.

There are currently 47 open alternative provision (AP) free schools, with seven in the pipeline. These schools are doing substantial work to support children who have been excluded or are at risk of exclusion, offering them alternative pathways. Studies have shown that school suspension and expulsion leaves some of our most vulnerable young people at risk of grooming by gangs and falling into knife crime. Indeed, almost a quarter of children in England who said they had carried a knife in the previous year had been expelled or suspended from school. Meanwhile, Ofsted estimated that 6,000 children were being educated in unregistered illegal schools.

With 42 open special free schools and 47 in the pipeline, the free school programme has delivered over 16,500 new places for the most vulnerable pupils. While this is impressive, the number of pupils receiving an EHCP is ever-increasing, with an 11% increase between May 2018 and May 2019. Demand is outstripping supply, making it crucial for the Government to sustain investment in this element of the sector. At the WEF seminar, Unity underlined the importance of high-quality registered special and AP schools to tackle some of the biggest issues facing today’s society.

NSN proposes that by expanding the free schools programme, targeting the most disadvantaged communities, investing in AP and sustaining the special free schools programme, the free school policy has the potential to deliver real and lasting change for all communities.

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