Free For All? Analysing Free Schools in England, 2018

Jen Garry, Chloe Rush, Jude Hillary, Carl Cullinane, Rebecca Montacute

31 May 2018

Free schools are all-ability schools, funded by the government, which can be set up by groups such as charities, universities, teachers or parents. They were intended to bring new and innovative providers – including parents and teachers – into a more autonomous and self-improving school system, driving up standards through greater school choice and increased competition.

The first free schools opened in September 2011 and six years later, 311 had been established. This report examines the free school programme, looking at the types of free school set up, the characteristics of their pupils, and their academic outcomes.

Key Findings

  • Free schools are not fulfilling their original purpose. Only one third of free schools set up to date were found to demonstrate a novel approach, while only one in five free schools have had parents involved in their inception.  In contrast, the number of free schools which have had MATs involved in their inception has increased. Overall, 178 free schools have been set up by MATs, nearly 60 per cent of all free schools.
  • Free schools have largely been set up in areas with a need for more school places. Almost all secondary free schools have opened in areas which had insufficient available capacity to meet its forecast need for pupil places.  Conversely, a number of the earliest primary free schools were opened in areas that had enough capacity. However since 2013/14, most primary free schools have been opened in areas with at least some need.
  • Secondary free school pupils achieve slightly better attainment outcomes. At Key Stage 4 in 2016/17, pupils at secondary free schools performed slightly better than pupils with similar characteristics at other types of school.  Disadvantaged pupils in free schools performed the equivalent of a quarter of a grade higher in each subject compared to their peers with similar characteristics in other school types.