Ten years since the start of the free schools programme, Jude Hillary from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) shares highlights from an independent investigation looking at the impact of the programme.
Since the free schools programme was established by the government in 2010, it has divided opinion. When the programme was introduced, free schools were new all-ability schools, directly funded by the government with the same legal status and freedoms as academies. The programme was launched with the intention of bringing new and innovative providers – including parents and teachers – into a more autonomous and self-improving school system, driving up standards through greater school choice.
Today, there are more than 550 open free schools educating more than 100,000 pupils. Although free schools span the breadth of the country, roughly a third of all open free schools are based in Greater London. This proportion has actually fallen in recent years, following a change in criteria, encouraging new free schools to be located in specific areas identified by the DfE.
What do the findings show us?
To mark the ten-year anniversary of the programme, NFER was brought in by New Schools Network (NSN) to conduct an independent investigation into how successful free schools have been (see tinyurl.com/ynaf59yd). Our analysis looked not only at academic performance, but also the teachers who chose to work in them, as well as whether free schools were popular among parents. Looking closely, the data shows a mixed picture.
In terms of attainment, primary free schools outperformed other schools at Key Stage 1 in reading, writing, maths and science in 2018–19. However, at Key Stage 2, free school pupils were 7% less likely to reach the expected standard in reading, writing and maths combined, compared to their peers in other schools. Meanwhile, secondary free schools outperformed other schools at Key Stage 4. Free school pupils achieved the equivalent of a tenth of a grade higher in each subject compared to their peers in other schools, once pupil and school-level characteristics (for example, prior attainment) were accounted for.
This strong Key Stage 4 performance is particularly impressive, considering that teachers in free schools tended to be younger and less experienced, compared to their peers in other schools. This was true at both primary and secondary level. Being taught by inexperienced teachers is normally associated with pupils making less educational progress (see tinyurl.com/52k6nya8), but secondary free schools appear to have overcome this hurdle, with their pupils outperforming their peers in other schools.
Free schools have also proven adept at attracting interest from parents. Primary free schools received more first preferences on average from parents applying to schools than other school types, while secondary free schools received a large number of first preferences compared to spaces available. What’s more, interest in primary and secondary free schools has generally grown the longer they have been open.
However, teacher retention in free schools was relatively low. The probability of a teacher in a free school leaving the state-funded sector was about two percentage points higher than other schools. This appears to be a challenge common to all new schools, as attrition rates in other types of new school were also higher than the average. We have also seen this reflected in the United States, as recent evidence for charter schools (a similar programme to free schools) has identified teacher retention as a challenge (tinyurl.com/9huuc58u). We need more research to look into why school staff are more likely to leave new schools than their existing peers, and what we can do to support them.
What next for free schools?
First, we need further research to learn from the successes and weaknesses of the free school programme. This should focus on identifying mechanisms to improve teacher retention and attainment at Key Stage 2 within free schools. These are especially important, as new free schools are currently being prioritised in more disadvantaged areas where educational attainment is lagging. About half of the latest wave of free schools approved by the government in February are intended for some of the most deprived areas of the country.
Beyond ensuring that lessons are learnt from the successes and weaknesses of the free schools programme to date, now is also an opportune time to consider what the aims and objectives of the next generation of free schools should be.
When the free school programme started ten years ago, it had a clear set of objectives, offering increased competition and greater parental choice in a bid to drive up standards across the country. The more recent experience has been about building capacity in the system, ideally in educationally disadvantaged areas, although this has not always been the case. Indeed, over the past five years, free schools have become more generic, as the vast majority have been established by multi-academy trusts (MATs).
As we move into the next decade of the free schools programme, the number of free schools is likely to continue growing, not least as all new schools are currently deemed to be free schools. But the programme has increasingly and simply become a vehicle for creating new schools.
If free schools are to remain a distinctive programme, we believe they should also have a clear mission. Otherwise they will just be new schools.
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Head of Centre for Policy and Practice Research Development at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).