Free schools ‘failing to live up to expectations’

1 Jun 18

Only one third of free schools have demonstrated an ‘innovative’ approach to teaching despite this being their purpose, according to research.

A report by research group the National Foundation for Educational Research and the Sutton Trust charity, released yesterday, found only 35% of primary open free schools and 29% of secondary open free schools were found to be ‘innovative’ in their approach to the curriculum.

The free schools programme was introduced by the coalition government in 2010 and allowed groups like charities, parents and faith groups to set up and run schools independently from the local council.

Despite this, the report found that just one in five free schools has had parental involvement from their inception, and that the proportion of parent-led free schools has decreased over time.

The percentage of parent-led free secondary schools dropped from 40% between 2011 and 2013 to 20% in 2015.

Loic Menzies, director of education think-tank LKMco, told PF: “This new report confirms that rather than being the parent-led disruptors that Michael Gove promised as part of the so-called ‘Big Society’, free schools are simply a vehicle for opening new schools in the era of academies. 

“Given ever tighter school funding, we cannot afford to keep opening schools where there are already surplus places, whilst other areas grapple with shortages. 

“The government needs to focus on opening new schools in the areas that need them most.”

More than half (178; 59%) of free schools have been set up by academy trusts.

Carole Willis, chief executive of the National Foundation for Educational Research, said the report shows the free schools programme “has not been very successful at bringing innovation to the education system”.

Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, called the low proportionate of disadvantaged students at the schools “unacceptable”.

“Free schools need to make serious efforts to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “[Free schools] are driving up standards, introducing innovative practices, and giving parents more choice of a good school place, with 84% of free schools inspected by Ofsted rated good or outstanding and 30% rated as outstanding.”

The research looked at data between 2011 and 2017. It found from 2011 to 2013, about half of secondary free schools and just over a quarter of primary were set up by academies.

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