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'The discussion around free schools has become distorted, and it isn't fair'

Natalie Evans, director of the New Schools Network, a charity that helps groups to open free schools, writes:

"Free schools are being foisted upon communities where they are not wanted."

"Free schools are languishing half empty, not wanted."

"Free schools are being outperformed by other state schools in regards to Ofsted judgements."

These are just some of the most recent pieces of misinformation, readily published as impartial commentary, on free schools over recent weeks.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise, given local elections are just weeks away and the general election is looming large over all the parties. Sadly, it was ever thus; education is the perennial political football, and free schools in particular.

It is a confusing and upsetting situation for parents who just want to ensure they get a place in a good local school for their children. But it is equally unfair on the hundreds of teachers who have either set up new free schools or who are working in them, determined to deliver on the commitments they have made to their local community. Why let that spoil a good story though?

First, some hard facts. Since 2010, nearly 300 new independent state schools have been set up – by teachers, charities and community groups. Each one of these schools is only in existence because parents have come forward in their thousands, demanding more for their children. More because they aren’t happy with what is on offer locally, or quite literally more, because there aren’t enough school places full stop.

National offer day for primary schools last month illustrated only too starkly the crisis that we are facing and the lengths that parents are going to, to secure that crucial school place for their son or daughter.

Freed from political control, once open free schools are directly accountable to their parents, not to bureaucrats in town halls. Overall, free schools are proving hugely popular. The latest data shows an average of three applicants for every place in a free school, with many oversubscribed by an even higher level. William Perkin in Ealing and Perry Beeches II in Birmingham for example both received five applications for every place, while the Cathedral Primary School in Bristol was six times oversubscribed.

It is true that in the first year of operation some free schools have not had every place full. But this has nothing to do with their popularity or quality, and everything to do with the obstacles and challenges around finding suitable sites.

Many free schools have been dogged by delays on property, meaning that they are unable to confirm an exact location to parents until extremely late in the day. Sadly, too often local authorities are behind these difficulties; dragging their feet on planning processes and being reluctant to engage with what the parents from their communities really want. Once these issues have been resolved and the schools are in their second or third years parents are voting with their feet – a number of free schools are already the most popular choice in their local area.

Opponents of free schools also point to their performance in regards to Ofsted. Again though, we are presented with a distorted picture. The assertion by opponents is that free schools are underperforming in comparison with other state schools. Not so.

Free schools are inspected in their second year of operation, and all of those inspected to date have been examined under the new, more rigorous Ofsted framework. If you compare how they have performed alongside all state schools also inspected since the new regime was introduced, 73 per cent of free schools are judged as “outstanding” or “good”, compared with 63 per cent of other schools.

What’s more, free schools are nearly twice as likely to be “outstanding” than their other state education counterparts.

A small number of free schools have – as has been very well documented – been judged to be “inadequate”. For a programme that was designed to drive up standards, this is not acceptable. Which is why it is so important that swift action is, and has been, taken where a school isn’t living up to what it promised its parents and the local community.

Free schools are in the spotlight and are likely to remain so throughout the coming year. The hurdle is high for setting up a new school, and rightly so. Let’s just make sure that amidst the rhetoric we don’t lose complete sight of the facts.

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