- There are currently 345 open free schools1and the Conservative Government has committed to seeing 500 open over the course of this Parliament. In addition, it announced in the March 2017 Budget that it intended to fund a further 140 free schools by the end of the next Parliament.2 It the Conservatives get their way, many of these 140 new free schools will be selective (See EduFact on Grammar schools).
- One way that the Government has sought to ensure that it hits 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.3 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 problem, 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 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.”4
- A report by the National Audit Office published in February 2017 highlighted wasteful spending on free schools and their harmful impact on other local schools.5 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.6
- 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%.7 The NAO warned that the free school programme will cost £9.7bn by 2021.8
- 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.9
- 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”.10
- 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."11
- Problems in 13 free schools have led to closure, planned closure, partial closure or takeover by another academy sponsor.12 Problems have included low standards, concerns over financial oversight and governance and a failure to recruit sufficient pupils.
- 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 3.1 per cent of teachers in all nursery/primary schools do not have QTS, the figure for primary free schools is more than four times higher at 12.5 per cent. While 5.9% of teachers in secondary schools do not hold QTS, the figure in secondary free schools is almost twice as high at 10.3%.13
- Former Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, claimed that free schools were “modern engines of social justice”.14 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.15
- 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. 16
- 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 Number of free schools open at 5 April 2017. See Government Transparency Data – DfE, Free schools: open schools and successful applications (20 January 2017) Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/free-schools-open-schools-and-successful-applications
2 See summary Budget statement, HM Treasury, Spring Budget 2017: 21 things you need to know (8 March 2017). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/spring-budget-2017-21-things-you-need-to-know
3 DfE, The free school presumption: Departmental advice for local authorities and new school proposers (February 2016). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/501328/Free_school__presumption_guidance_18_february.pdf
4 House of Commons Education Committee, Academies and free schools. Fourth Report of Session 2014–15, London: The Stationery Office Limited (January 2015), p. 55.
5 National Audit Office, Capital funding for schools (22 February 2017). Available at: https://www.nao.org.uk/report/capital-funding-for-schools/
6 Ibid, page 40.
7 Ibid, paragraph 22, page 11
8 Ibid, page 46.
9 Ibid, page 9.
10 Ibid, page 9.
11 Ofsted (2015) The Annual Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills 2014/15, Ofsted: Manchester. p.13.
12 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. A number of free schools have been rebrokered and taken over by new sponsors: Kings Science Academy is now Dixons Science Academy; Hartsbrook E-Act Free School is now Brook House Primary School; CET Primary School Westminster is now The Minerva Academy; CET Primary School Tower Hamlets is now Solebay Primary; and St Michael’s Catholic School has been taken over by Camborne Science and International Academy.
13 According to the latest DfE figures. See: DfE (June 2016), School Workforce in England: November 2014. p. 7
14 Nicky Morgan Free schools drive social justice (22 May 2015). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/free-schools-drive-social-justice-nicky-morgan
15 Irena Barker, Free schools not reaching the poorest, study finds, TES (7 August 2014). Available at: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/free-schools-not-reaching-poorest-study-finds
16 National Audit Office, Establishing Free Schools (December 2013), p. 43. Available at: https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/10314-001-Free-Schools-Book.pdf