Yesterday David Cameron announced the 49 new free schools that will be opened in England from 2015 onwards. This will bring the total number of these trailblazing institutions – set up by parents or independent groups, and free from local authority control – to over 400. This is twice the number of new academies opened under the last government and in half the time. This huge achievement is the product of years of unpaid work by over 1,500 groups of teachers, parents, charities, community organisations and existing schools. And there could be more to come. Cameron has pledged to approve another 500 free schools in England by 2020.
Yet free schools have been controversial from the start. Even before they opened, critics charged that they would irreparably damage local education, diverting resources and thereby harming other schools in the process.
But fewer than five years on, early indications suggest that the doom-mongers were sorely mistaken. Free schools of all shapes and sizes have been enthusiastically set up across the country. Here in London, there are some brilliant examples – from Canary Wharf College, Reach Academy Feltham and Ark Conway, all rated Outstanding by Ofsted, to innovative new providers such as the East London Academy of Arts and Music, London Academy of Excellence, and the City Gateway 14-19 school. These are not what some have insultingly called “yummy mummy vanity projects”, but local schools embedded in their communities and providing a high quality of education. They are also popular: on average, free schools are three times over-subscribed, with some (like the West London Free School) more than ten times over-subscribed.
But are they working? We don’t yet have exam data for almost any of these schools. But in a report Policy Exchange published yesterday, our analysis suggests that, when you look at the impact on schools close to free schools, some interesting patterns emerge. First, when a free school has opened, the predicted collapse of other educational institutions nearby has not happened. Second, it appears that competition between schools is driving up results. For the lowest-performing schools in particular, the presence of a free school nearby is associated with an increase in those schools’ results. Crucially, this increase is greater than that observed among similarly-performing schools that don’t have a free school nearby. Many factors influence the results of an individual school, of course, but this pattern holds across an analysis of 171 open free schools and over 500 schools close to them.
So free schools are popular, have been set up in response to local need, and appear to be driving better results in schools nearby. All political parties are therefore right to commit to maintaining a process to allow new free schools to open. But there is a real difference between letting any community put forward a plan for a high quality school and it being approved (which is the current system) and only allowing new free schools to be set up in areas where there is an absolute shortage of places, known as areas of Basic Need.
Readers with school-aged children, especially those who received their secondary school allocation this week, will need little reminding of the pressures faced by the London state schooling system, with a boom in pupil numbers placing a real strain on places. Free schools can help to address that. In fact, they are doing so. Around three quarters of all free schools to date have opened in areas that need more school places.
But restricting free schools to these areas alone would be a real mistake. First, some of the positive area-wide impacts that could be credited to free schools are happening in areas where there are already surplus places.
Second, areas which need new school places tend to have two features in common: they are no wealthier than areas with surplus places, but they already achieve better results (largely because parents are voting with their feet, sending their children to these better schools which then become over-subscribed). So limiting new free schools to over-subscribed areas would also limit the ability of free schools to raise standards in under-performing areas.
Finally, telling parents that “you cannot have a new school, because there are some empty places in your local area already, even though you don’t want to send your children there” is profoundly undemocratic and condescending. We estimate that over 2m children across England are in schools that are performing below average. Politicians of all parties need to recognise that it is not acceptable to give parents a Hobson’s choice: a free choice, with only one option. They should support new free schools wherever local communities want them and can demonstrate a high quality plan to set one up.