Schoolzone blog: From what are Free Schools free?

From what are Free Schools free?
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10 March 2015

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It's probably no coincidence that David Cameron announced an expansion the Free Schools programme in the same week that right wing think tank Policy Exchange* published a paper on the effect of free schools. But what are they for, and do they work?

The last Conservative manifesto said that free schools would improve standards by increasing competition. But we can't tell anything about that from the data because the last round of school performance data shows only a handful of free schools' performance.

It also hoped that they would help close the socio-economic achievement gap. But we can't tell anything about that either, for similar reasons.

So what measures does Policy Exchange use? The following are the sources they used, linked to the original documents and using the Policy Exchange's own words.

DfE: "Free schools tend to be oversubscribed". They are - by a factor of 2.7 applicants for every place. However, this isn't an indication that they are achieving either of the intended aims.

Ofsted: "too early to assess the performance of Free Schools" agrees with the above.

Education Select Committee: "too early to draw conclusions on the quality of education provided by Free Schools or their broader system impact".

National Audit Office: "the Department would need to exert greater cost control over the programme as a whole in later years".

Rob Higham from the IoE: "on average groups who were successful drew predominantly from more advantaged communities and professional backgrounds"

Green, Allen and Jenkins from the IoE: "Free Schools are also taking children
with higher prior attainment, and with much higher proportions of non-white students than nationally or in local neighbourhoods"

And yet the Policy Exchange concludes "Free Schools are helping to raise standards not just for the pupils who attend them but for other pupils across the local community – especially for those in lower performing schools"

So, schoolzone's recommendation about Free Schools is: don't listen to any of the spin that anyone puts on the initiative - for or against - it's too soon tell what their impact well be, but the one thing that is clear is that there is no evidence to support the expansion of initiative.

And as to how free these schools are - check: National Audit Office - but you can probably imagine what the answer to that question is.


*The report's co-author, Jonathan Simons, Head of Education at Policy Exchange, held the same role in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and he's Chair of govs at a free school




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