A new report examining the impact free schools have had since the introduction of the programme in 2010 has been published today by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).
To mark the ten year anniversary of free schools, New Schools Network commissioned NFER to conduct an independent data-led investigation, which provides an insight into the performance of free schools, parental choices and the demographics and supply dynamics of the teacher workforce.
While the first 24 free schools opened their doors in September 2011, the number of free schools today stands at over 550. By January 2019, the number of pupils being educated in a free school had reached the 100,000 mark.
Key findings from the report include:
- The proportion of free schools judged outstanding by Ofsted was much higher than in other schools: Some 35 per cent of primary and all-through free schools inspected, as of February 2020, had an outstanding rating compared to 17 per cent for other primary schools. In secondary, 26 per cent of free schools were judged to be outstanding, five percentage points higher than for other secondary schools.
- Free school pupils were not typical of the wider pupil population: Free school pupils were disproportionally likely to come from an ethnic background, have a first language other than English, and be based in London. Secondary free school pupils were also significantly more likely to be from a disadvantaged background.
- Attainment outcomes were mixed in the primary phase: Primary free schools outperformed other schools at KS1 (during Year 1 and 2) in reading, writing, maths and science in 2018-19. However, at KS2 (that is, during Years 3 to 6 inclusive), free school pupils were seven per cent less likely to reach the expected standard in reading, writing and maths compared to peers in other schools.
- Secondary free schools outperformed other schools at KS4: Free school pupils achieved the equivalent of a tenth of a grade higher in each subject at KS4 (during Years 7 to 11 inclusive) compared to their peers in other schools, once pupil and school-level characteristics were controlled for.
- Free school performance outcomes at KS5 has been mixed: Pupils attending 16-19 free schools outperformed pupils in other school types. However, sixth form pupils in secondary and all-through free schools performed worse than their counterparts in other schools.
- Free schools continued to attract interest from parents: Primary free schools received more first preferences from parents applying to school, both in absolute terms and relative to the number of places available, compared to other school types. Secondary free schools received fewer first preferences from parents but they received a large number of first preferences compared to spaces available.
- Popularity increased relative to nearest neighbouring schools: Both primary and secondary free schools are more popular than their neighbouring schools, who are likely to be operating in the same circumstances. Relative to their five nearest neighbouring schools, their popularity has also increased over time.
- Teachers were not representative of the wider teacher workforce: Teachers in free schools tended to be younger and less experienced compared to their peers in other schools, across both phases. Despite the fact that being taught by inexperienced teachers is associated with pupils making less educational progress (Allen et al, 2016), teachers in secondary free schools appear to have overcome this hurdle as their pupils have achieved better KS4 outcomes than their peers in other schools.
- Teacher retention in free schools was lower than in other schools: The probability of a teacher in a free school leaving the state-funded sector was around two percentage points higher than other schools. However, the report found evidence that attrition rates in other new non-free schools  were also higher than the average.
The report outlined a series of recommendations, including:
- Further research is needed to understand why KS2 attainment in primary free schools is lower than in other schools, and identify actions that can be taken to address this.
- Additional investigation is required to establish why teacher retention in newer schools is lower than in other schools, and identify measures that can be taken to reduce this difference.
- Lessons should be drawn from the successes of secondary and 16-19 free schools, and used to inform best practice.
Jude Hillary, Report Author and Head of Centre for Policy and Practice Research Development, said:
“The free schools programme has been running for ten years now and our data-led investigation reveals there have been a number of positive outcomes, including free schools being more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted, their popularity with parents and their pupils outperforming peers in other schools at Key Stage 4. However, there are also some areas for development, notably Key Stage 2 pupil outcomes – which are lower than in other schools – and teacher retention, which evidence suggests is a wider challenge across all new schools. More work is needed to further understand the factors driving some of these outcomes in order to share learnings and help to inform the future of the free schools programme.”
Unity Howard, Director of New Schools Network, added:
“To mark ten years since the first 16 free schools were approved to open their doors in England, New Schools Network commissioned the NFER to conduct independent research into their impact. To truly reflect, learn lessons, then reignite the programme, policy makers need evidence to set the future direction of the programme. This report shows that free schools have proven successful. It is critical that future generations of free schools can continue the work of the schools already open to improve outcomes for more communities across the country.”
To read New Schools Network full response to the research findings please visit: www.newschoolsnetwork.org