Free school project hijacked by MATs as parent role diminishes

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Flagship policy: The free schools programme has been a key policy of the Department for Education since 2010

The government’s free schools programme has strayed from its original purpose, with the majority of new schools being set-up by multi-academy trusts (MAT) rather than by parent or community groups.

A new research report finds that just one-third of established free schools have adopted innovative approaches to teaching and learning and only one in five have had local parents involved since inception.

The report – published by the Sutton Trust and the National Foundation for Educational Research – has been cited by opponents as evidence of the failure of the free schools programme.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “Free schools add nothing to the school system in England but instead have, in many cases, undermined existing schools where they have been established in areas without basic need for new school places.”

Free schools are all-ability schools, funded by the government, and can be set up by groups such as charities, universities, teachers or parents. They are not run by local councils and have the same legal status as academies.

The programme was set-up by former education secretary Michael Gove in 2010 with the aim of bringing innovative providers, including parents, into a more autonomous school system.

Currently, there are 152 primary, 113 secondary, and 37 all-through free schools up and running.

However, the report – Free for All? – reveals that overall 59 per cent of all free schools have been set up by MATs, and that this is an increasing trend.

Meanwhile, parental involvement in the setting up of schools is decreasing. Between 2011 and 2013, parents were involved in more than 40 per cent of the secondary free schools opened. However, since 2015, this has dropped to less than 20 per cent. For primary free schools the proportion has dropped from 32 per cent to just four per cent.

Furthermore, only 35 per cent of primary free schools and 29 per cent of secondary free schools were considered by researchers to have innovative approaches to their curriculums.

The analysis also finds that both primary and secondary free schools have slightly lower proportions of disadvantaged pupils than in their catchment areas. However, these pupils perform better at GCSE – to the tune of 0.25 of a grade in each subject – than similar pupils not being educated in free schools.

The report is advising the government to “review and clarify” the purpose of its free school programme. It states: “The original intention of the free school programme was to encourage parents and teachers to help set up new schools, and to encourage innovation. But the programme has increasingly become the only vehicle for new schools at a time of rising rolls. New free schools should have a clear and distinctive mission.”

Commenting on the report, Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, said: “This report simply confirms the view of the NASUWT that there is no evidence that structural changes raise standards of education. The introduction of free schools and academies not only caused great turbulence, anxiety and uncertainty for all involved, but also saw millions of pounds of public money squandered.”

Meanwhile, the NEU’s Kevin Courtney added: “The report fails to mention the high cost to the taxpayer of the free school programme – some £3.6 billion to date – or an average of £8.6 million per school.

“The NEU is clear that this money could have been better invested in existing state schools in England and in funding local authorities to establish new maintained schools where there is a clear need for new school places and which, unlike free schools, are accountable to local communities.”

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “What this report proves is that opening a new school is a difficult business, requiring lots of capacity from the proposer group. The fact that free schools now tend to be set up by MATs shows that tried and tested methods and a strong support network are a necessity, which begs the question why local authorities, who are able to offer this, are barred from opening new schools themselves.”

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, added: “Free schools were supposed to bring new and innovative providers into the education sector, to drive up standards and improve school choice. But as our research shows, very few are fulfilling that original purpose.

“Our research finds that while free schools are often located in disadvantaged areas, both primary and secondary free schools have lower proportions of disadvantaged pupils than their catchment areas. This is unacceptable.”

  • Free for All? Analysing free schools in England, 2018, NFER & Sutton Trust, May 2018:

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