Free schools are a type of academy introduced under the Coalition Government in 2011. They were a flagship policy of former Education Secretary Michael Gove. There are now more than 700 free schools that are either open or approved.
The Coalition document said that the free schools programme would, “give parents, teachers, charities and local communities the chance to set up new schools, as part of our plans to allow new providers to enter the state school system in response to parental demand”. The reality has been very different.
Research by the Sutton Trust and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NfER) found that by 2018 only one in five free schools had parents involved in their inception, and the proportion of parent-led schools had decreased over time.
It also found that over half (59%) of all free schools have been set up by Multi Academy Trusts (MATs). MAT involvement has jumped from around half of secondary free schools between 2011 and 2015, to over three quarters of those set up since 2015.
In 2010, before the first free schools were opened, Michael Gove said that “Innovation, diversity and flexibility are the heart of the free schools policy”.
However, the Sutton Trust and NfER research found that only one third of the free schools which had been set up demonstrated “innovative approaches to their curriculum or ethos.”
Like academies, free schools can employ unqualified teachers but analysis of Government data shows they do so at a much higher rate than other schools. While just 2.9% of teachers in all nursery/primary schools do not have QTS, the figure for primary free schools is more than three times higher at 10.2%. Similarly, while 5.4% of teachers in all state funded secondary schools do not hold QTS, the figure in secondary free schools is 8.9%.
Former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan claimed that free schools were “modern engines of social justice”. However, analysis of free school intakes by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) found that: “In primary free schools, 13.3 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals compared with 14.7 per cent of pupils nationally. Further analysis suggests that in primary free schools, and in secondary free schools serving the most disadvantaged areas, free schools are not necessarily attracting disadvantaged pupils in the proportions that might be expected.”
Free schools are often imposed on local communities without their input or consent. The decision on whether to approve the opening of a free school is determined centrally by the Education Secretary with scant regard for local views, the degree of need for new school places, and precious little transparency over the process.
This means free schools can open in areas where there is not a need for new school places. This can lead to a drop in funding for existing schools which in turn can have a negative effect on the education of pupils in those schools.
According to evidence provided to the Education Select Committee, “35% of the first four waves of free schools were in districts with no forecast need and 52% were in districts with either no forecast need or only moderate need.”
In 2017 the National Audit Office also found that many free schools had been built in areas with plenty of spare capacity, meaning many were struggling to recruit enough students to break even financially. This was also having a negative impact on existing schools.
According to the NAO, the DfE itself estimated that, “57,500 of 113,500 new places in mainstream free schools opening between 2015 and 2021 will create spare capacity in some free schools’ immediate area”.
The NAO noted that this “spare capacity” can affect pupil numbers and therefore funding in neighbouring schools and referred to DfE data indicating that “spare places in 52 free schools opening in 2015 could have a moderate or high impact on the funding of any of 282 neighbouring schools”.
The NAO also highlighted wasteful spending on free schools. It found that free school places are more expensive than places provided by local authorities, with a place in a primary free school opening in 2013-14 or 2014-15 costing £14,400 on average (33% more than places created in the same years by local authorities); while a place in a secondary free school cost £19,100 (51% more than a local authority secondary).
According to the NAO free school land acquisitions had cost £850m and officials had been paying “premium” prices. On average, the Government had paid 19% more than official land valuations for new sites, with 20 of the 175 sites purchased so far exceeding their official valuation by more than 6%.
The NAO warned that the free school programme will cost £9.7bn by 2021.
Despite this huge expenditure on free schools there is no evidence that they improve standards.
However, problems in ten free schools, including low standards, concerns over financial oversight and governance and a failure to recruit sufficient pupils have led to closure, planned closure or partial closure.
The NEU wants the Government to end the free schools’ programme, with no further free schools approved and open free schools brought within the same regulatory framework and oversight arrangements as maintained schools. In addition, legal powers to establish new maintained schools and to direct local schools to expand where additional places are needed, should be returned to local authorities.