They remain a dividing line in education policy. But what genuinely raises attainment for disadvantaged groups?by Natalie Perera / October 17, 2019 / Leave a comment
In a competitive field, the introduction of free schools has been perhaps one of the more controversial education reforms of the last decade.
Eight years on from when the first free schools opened their doors, the Education Policy Institute has today published its latest assessment of how successful the programme has been.
State-funded, but independent of local authorities, free schools were introduced during Michael Gove’s tenure as education secretary in the early days of the Coalition government, and now number over 500. They are accountable to Ofsted, just like any other state-funded school—though many are yet to be inspected. A high proportion of them are also faith schools—one in six.
Free schools were intended to bring new ideas into the school system, though over time the aims have become somewhat diluted. Nevertheless, in recent months there has been something of a resurgence under Boris Johnson’s government.
The prime minister himself was at the forefront of the announcement of a new wave of free schools. Elsewhere, the recent Conservative Party conference saw no fewer than four free school leaders join the schools minister Nick Gibb on stage to discuss their stories, while Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state, took the opportunity to remind his audience of Labour’s plan to end the programme.
If we do have a general election in the coming months, it’s a safe bet that free schools will be one of the key dividing lines in education policy.
But given the diverse and evolving aims, it is not always clear what success for the programme actually looks like. Some free schools came into being as an opportunity to innovate and offer something different. Others were set up in response to parents’ demand for new schools—especially where the quality of existing schools was poor. In many cases, new free schools were simply a response to a rising pupil population and the need for more places.
In short, the name free school is now something of an umbrella term capturing nearly all new schools.
Regardless of their origins, they have all joined a school system in England in which family background is still too big a predictor of what pupils will achieve. Pupils from low income backgrounds are on average a year and a half behind other pupils by the…