Public sector ‘should host expansion in free schools’

9 Mar 15

Free schools should be given priority to use vacant public sector land or buildings as part of a plan to expand the number of the institutions, which are funded directly from government and independent of local authority control, a think-tank has said.

In a report examining the government’s free school policy, which has seen 171 free schools founded by parents, teachers or charities since 2010, Policy Exchange said there was evidence they had helped boost standards in their local area.

Although today’s A Rising Tide: the competitive benefits of free schools report found that, on average, local authority schools near to free schools performed in line with national trends, the poorest performing ones had seen bigger jumps in performance. This covered both the proportion achieving five GCSEs between A* and C, including English and maths in secondary school and the percentage of pupils achieving Level 4 at Key Stage 2 in primaries.

In 2011, the lowest quartile of secondary schools near free schools saw an increase in performance of 8 percentage points, above the national trend of 2%. This fell to a 1 percentage point decline in performance in 2014, but this was lower than the 4% decrease nationally.

For primary schools, there was a 7 percentage point improvement in 2011, above the national trend of 5%, rising to 12 points for those near schools opening in 2014, compared to the 3% rate nationally.

Jonathan Simons, Policy Exchange’s head of education, said the analysis indicated free schools had helped drive up standards in lower performing schools in the local community.

‘Parents should be given real choice to set up new schools where they want them and where they can show a real plan for delivering good new provision,’ he said.

‘Ideology must not stand in the way of providing the best possible education system for our children.’

Coming on the day Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to open 500 free schools if the Conservatives win May’s general election, Policy Exchange recommended that existing free schools and academies that want to set up new schools in areas of poor educational performance should be eligible for expansion grants.

As well as giving free schools the absolute first priority – ahead of NHS or housing – when disposing of public sector land, quicker planning decisions should also be make on whether buildings can be used for new schools.

However, NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said the expansion of free schools was part of an obsessive ideological focus on structural change.

Responding to Cameron’s announcement, she said: ‘It is scandalous that in the context where the Conservative Party is proposing even deeper cuts to funding post the general election, it still plans to pour millions of pounds into free schools. There is no evidence that structural change raises educational standards.’

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