- There are 344 open free schools and a further 344 have already been approved to open over the next few years.1 The Conservative Government has previously made a commitment to opening 500 by September 2020.
- One way that the Government has sought to ensure that it meets its free schools target is through the “free schools presumption” which requires local authorities to seek proposals for a free school where a new school is needed.2 In effect, local authorities can no longer open new maintained schools but must support the opening of a free school instead.
- 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 lack of planning creates real problems, for example, when free schools open in areas with additional 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.”3
- A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) published in February 2017 highlighted wasteful spending on free schools and their harmful impact on other local schools. It noted 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). The higher cost is mainly because free schools tend to involve the purchase of land.4
- According to the NAO report, these free school land acquisitions have cost £850m over the last five years 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.
- The NAO report 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.
- The report states that 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”.
- Despite this huge expenditure on free schools there is no evidence that they improve standards. In its 2015 annual report, Ofsted concluded that, "we have inspected 158 free schools and inspection outcomes are broadly in line with those for all schools."5
- Problems in eight 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.6
- Many free schools have opened on former maintained school sites. In these circumstances the local authority must hand over the land and buildings to the academy trust that runs the school at a peppercorn rent on a 125-year lease. This is effectively asset stripping publicly owned land and buildings and giving them to unaccountable free school operators.
- Like academies, free schools can employ unqualified teachers but they do so at a much higher rate than other schools. While just 3.4% of teachers in all nursery/primary schools do not have QTS, the figure for primary free schools alone is around more than four times higher at 12.3%. Similarly, while 6.2% of teachers in all secondary schools do not hold QTS, the figure in secondary free schools is almost twice as high at 11.3%.7
- A YouGov survey of parents’ views on education commissioned by the NUT showed that 73% of parents believed employing unqualified teaching staff in free schools is a tactic “designed to save money, not improve standards”.8
- Former Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, claimed that free schools were “modern engines of social justice”.9 However, analysis of free school intakes shows that they tend to have a smaller proportion of disadvantaged pupils than the average for their area. Research by the Institute of Education published in July 2014 found that around 13.5 per cent of pupils attending primary free schools were eligible for free school meals (FSM), while within the neighbourhoods of free schools, 18.3 per cent of children were eligible. Researchers also found that 17.5 per cent of pupils attending secondary free schools were eligible for FSM despite 22.1 per cent of young people being eligible in the areas surrounding the schools.10
- Furthermore free school “founders” have special privileges. For example, free school admission policies can prioritise the “children of founders” where the school is oversubscribed. In 2013, the NAO found that 16% of the 174 open free schools at that time prioritised the “children of founders” in their oversubscription criteria, so those involved in setting them up were getting priority for their children.11
- The NUT 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.
1 Department for Education (April 2017), ‘List of all free schools: open or in pre-opening stage (up to April 2017)’. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/free-schools-open-schools-and-successful-applications
2 Department for Education (February 2016), The free school presumption: Departmental advice for local authorities and new school proposers.
3 House of Commons Education Committee (January 2015), Academies and free schools. Fourth Report of Session 2014–15. p. 55.
4 National Audit Office (22 February 2017), Capital funding for schools.
5 Ofsted (2015) The Annual Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills 2014/15, Ofsted: Manchester. p.13.
6 Discovery New School, Durham Free School, Dawes Lane Academy and Stockport Technical School have closed. Southwark Free School, Atherton Community School and Bolton Wanderers Free School are due to close in summer 2017. Al Madinah Free School was ordered to close its secondary provision.
7 According to the latest DfE figures. See: DfE (June 2017), School Workforce in England: November 2016. p. 7
8 Rachael Pells (25 July 2017), ‘More than 600,000 pupils being taught lessons by unqualified teachers, says Labour’, Independent.
9 Nicky Morgan (22 May 2015), ‘Free schools drive social justice’.
10 Irena Barker (7 August 2014), ‘Free schools not reaching the poorest, study finds’, TES.
11 National Audit Office (December 2013), Establishing Free Schools. p. 43.