- The Conservative Government has committed to opening 500 free schools in the course of this Parliament, adding to the 304 that are already open. But how will this expansion of the programme work and what is the record of free schools so far?
- One way that the Government has sought to ensure that it hits this target is by adjusting its guidance so that all new schools are designated as free schools, regardless of how they were set up. In July 2015 the DfE amended its advice on opening new schools to stipulate that any new school opened since May 2015 will be designated as a free school. The guidance says that the change “reflects the fact that ‘free school’ is the department’s policy term for a new provision academy.” 1
- This is a long way from the Conservative’s original plan for free schools to be set up by parents and local groups. It means that any new school, even one opened by an academy chain, will legally be seen as a free school.
- There is no evidence that free schools improve standards. The DfE has claimed that free schools are more likely to be rated outstanding by Ofsted than other state-funded schools. However, in its 2015 report Ofsted itself concluded: "we have inspected 158 free schools and inspection outcomes are broadly in line with those for all schools." According to Ofsted the percentage of primary free schools judged good or outstanding at their latest inspection was 80 per cent compared with 85 per cent for all primary schools. The proportion of secondary free schools judged good or outstanding was 76 per cent compared to 74 per cent for all secondary schools." 2
- Problems in ten free schools have led to closure, partial closure or takeover by another academy sponsor. Two free schools were closed completely due to serious issues with performance and management while one free school was told to stop taking in secondary age pupils after it was criticised for failing to safeguard its children. 3 A further two free schools have closed because of problems in recruiting pupils. 4 At least five free schools have been transferred to the control of other academy sponsors because of concerns about performance or lack of demand for places. 5
- The decision to open 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 little transparency over the process.
- 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.” 6
- When free schools open in areas with additional school places this can lead to a drop in funding for existing schools and can have a negative effect on the pupils in these schools. 7
- In December 2013 the National Audit Office (NAO) found that £241m had been spent on free schools in areas that already have enough school places. The NAO also revealed that the DfE had spent £8m of taxpayers’ money to pay off the debts of private schools which had become free schools, as well as £15 million to upgrade their facilities and accommodation. 8 Furthermore, DfE data shows that at least £1.1 million has been spent on 21 free school projects that never opened. 9
- 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.
- Free schools receive a disproportionate amount of funding. DfE data shows that the average amount of state funding given to free schools in 2013-14 was £7,761 compared with a national figure for local authority schools of £4,767. The Guardian reported that out of all academies with more than 100 pupils, the top-funded school was a free school: Ark All Saints academy, in Southwark, south London, which received £19,420 per pupil. 10
- Like academies, free schools can employ unqualified teachers. In fact, they employ three times as many teachers without qualified teacher status (QTS) in proportion to their full time equivalent (FTE) staff than state funded schools as a whole. 11
- Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has claimed that free schools are “modern engines of social justice”. 12 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. 13
- Furthermore free school “founders” have special privileges. For example, free school admission policies can prioritise the ‘children of founders’ where the school is oversubscribed. 14
- Free schools are also less accountable. They currently make up six per cent of all academies but account for ten per cent of the 58 allegations of “financial irregularity” made against academies and free schools in the three years to September 2015. 15
- The NUT wants the Government to end the free schools’ programme, with no further free schools approved and open free schools to be 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 DfE (July 2015), The free school presumption: Departmental advice for local authorities and new school proposers. p. 3.
2 Ofsted (2015), The Annual Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills 2014/15, Ofsted: Manchester. p. 13.
3 Discovery New School and Durham Free School were closed completely. Al Madinah Free School was ordered to close its secondary provision.
4 Dawes Lane Academy and Stockport Technical School.
5 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 was taken over by Camborne Science and International Academy in September 2015.
6 House of Commons Education Committee (January 2015), Academies and free schools. Fourth Report of Session 2014–15, London: The Stationery Office Limited. p. 55
7 See for example: Fiona Miller (22 September 2015) “Free school cut through our community like a knife”, Guardian.
8 National Audit Office (2013), Establishing Free Schools, London: The Stationery Office. p. 26.
9 Richard Garnder (20 October 2014), “Exclusive: Taxpayers footed £1m bill for free schools that never even opened”, The Independent.
10 Warwick Mansell (25 August 2015), “The 60% extra funds enjoyed by England’s free school pupils”, Guardian.
11 According to DfE figures, the number of teachers without QTS in free schools represents 15.4 per cent of their 2.6 thousand FTE teachers. In contrast teachers without QTS now represent 4.5 per cent of all teachers in state funded schools, although this figure has grown from 3.7 per cent in 2013. See: DfE (July 2015), School Workforce in England: November 2014. p. 6
12 Nicky Morgan (22 May 2015) “Free schools drive social justice”.
13 Irena Barker (7 August 2014), ‘Free schools not reaching the poorest, study finds’, TES.
14 In 2013, the NAO found that 16 per cent of the 174 open free schools at the time prioritised the “children of founders” in their oversubscription criteria so those involved in setting them up were getting priority for their children (Establishing Free Schools,p. 43).
15 2012-13 was the first financial year in which allegations of potential fraud were collated. Daniel Boffey (5 September 2015), “Claims of ‘irregularities’ at free schools and academies”, Guardian.