THE free school programme has undoubtedly been one of the Conservatives’ major success stories. Yet, despite this, as we approach the 10 year anniversary of the programme, Suella Braverman MP has issued a stark warning that it is at risk of stalling.
In a new paper entitled Fight for Free Schools authored by Braverman and published by The Centre for Policy Studies, she urges the Government to speed up the expansion of free schools; ensure that they act as drivers of competition and innovation within the education system and return to the original ethos of the programme.
Ten years from the start of the programme, there is a plethora of evidence to support its success. Free schools are 50 per cent more likely to be rated as outstanding by Ofsted than other types of schools. They also have an extremely strong track record of academic results at both primary and secondary level, which unsurprisingly contributes to parents strongly preferring them to other school types.
Additionally, free schools serve disadvantaged pupils much more than other types of schools. They are more likely to be set up in deprived areas, with three times as many in the most deprived local authorities as the least deprived. There is also plenty of evidence showing that disadvantaged pupils achieve better grades and receive greater opportunities at them as opposed to other types of schools.
Contrary to the criticisms of free schools, there is no evidence to support the notion that they harm other schools by poaching the most talented pupils in the local area. If anything, they actually drive up the standards of other schools.
Kavit, a pupil at Michaela Community School, a free school in Wembley, North London, that Braverman co-founded, reaffirms this evidence by praising the opportunities that the school has provided its pupils.
A range of initiatives including anti-bullying measures and a ‘family lunch’ in which every pupil is given a role from serving food to cleaning tables in order to ensure pupils from different cultures and backgrounds mix have been introduced. Their excellent teachers stay for extra hours after school to help those who need it the most. Kavit’s story and experience is a common theme across pupils at free schools.
Since 2015 however, the programme has begun to stall – and is at risk of halting altogether – due, in part, to the Government reneging on the original ethos of the programme by changing the rules so that free schools can only open in areas where there is a shortage of places, as opposed to being able to open in areas where the quality of local education is inadequate.
The result of this shift in the vision of the programme has created two major issues. Firstly, free schools’ role as drivers of innovation and competition in the education system has been stripped.
Secondly, they will almost certainly become impossible to open in the near future due to a fall in pupil numbers entering the system. With a fall in births, this means that many areas will not see a need for new places. But the point is the need for good places – not just sufficient places. As well as Ofsted and inspections, we need to help new schools open in places where there are not enough good places.
Our paper urges the Government to turbocharge its commitment to the programme by removing some of the barriers to opening new free schools.
Free schools should be allowed in any area where the results are below average – ensuring that alongside other measures, no child is forced to endure a poor education.
If parents want a new school, and there is evidence existing schools are not pulling their weight, we need to take action both to improve that school, but also set up alternatives.
Free schools are a way of ensuring the impact of poor education is minimised. Currently often to save money the government will expand failing schools – a new mobile classroom for example – which is cheaper than setting up a new school. But the cost of a bad education for those pupils is far greater than the money saved.
The opening of free schools does come with a heavy cost to the Department for Education (DfE), something that Fighting for Free Schools also recognises. The paper proposes a series of innovative solutions in order to offset the cost of building new schools via planning reforms and to explore new approaches to encourage more private and philanthropic funding of state education.
We at the Centre for Policy Studies echo Braverman’s commitment, drive and passion to see ‘free schools remain at the heart of our educational agenda’ and look forward to seeing the new Government considering these proposals in order to ensure that the programme thrives and continues to make a difference to the lives of children such as Kavit.
Daniel Zealander is the Communications and Events Officer at the Centre for Policy Studies.