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Exclusive: DfE to target free schools in bottom-performing third of country

Social Mobility Action Plan to shift focus of free school programme towards underperforming areas

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Social Mobility Action Plan to shift focus of free school programme towards underperforming areas

The Department for Education is going to target new free schools in parts of the country which are in the bottom third for educational standards, Tes understands.

Well-placed sources say that the government’s forthcoming Social Mobility Action Plan will state that the majority of free schools set up by central government will be in poorer performing areas.

This would result in the focus of the free school programme shifting away from the South East, where it has been traditionally strongest, to the North of England and the Midlands. 

However, Tes understands that some free schools will continue to be opened in other, more successful, parts of the country via the “local authority route”.

Free schools commitment

In the coming weeks, the government is expected to publish a Social Mobility Action Plan.

According to sources, the plan will include a commitment to most new free schools opened via central government to be in areas in the bottom third of the country for educational standards.

Outside of these areas, the government will generally only set up mainstream free schools in pockets of very poor standards.

Tes also understands there will be some non-mainstream free schools set up via central government outside these priority areas, such as specialist maths schools, post-16 schools, special schools and alternative provision schools.

Local authority route

While the majority of free schools set up via central government will be restricted to the bottom third of the country, Tes has been told that new schools will continue to be opened elsewhere via the “local authority route”.

The local authority route, which is also known as the “presumption route”, was first outlined by the DfE in July 2015. 

Unlike the traditional free school programme, where proposers apply to the DfE – which is then responsible for procuring the site and providing the capital costs – under the presumption route, councils seeking to meet a need for additional school places in their area hold a competition to appoint a provider. 

The local authority is then responsible for providing the site for the school and meeting the associated capital costs. 

In July the education secretary, Justine Greening, announced that in order to save money within the DfE, of 140 new free schools announced by the government in the 2017 Spring Budget, 30 would now be delivered via the local authority route.

Ms Greening has made no secret of her desire to improve standards in the worst performing third of the country.

'Improve the performance'

In a speech on social mobility in July, she said there was a “clear set of local authority districts” in the “bottom third of the country” which contain more than half of the schools in England rated "requires improvement" or "inadequate".

She said it would be the “explicit goal” of the DfE “to improve the performance of young people in these areas” and “lift them up”.

Pinpointing schools in these areas would also respond to criticism recently levelled by the Education Policy Institute, that free schools have been “ineffective in targeting areas of low school quality”.

The EPI found that, of 347 free schools open by the end of the 2016-17 year, 124 were in London but just nine were in the North East.

It is not clear what criteria the DfE will use to determine the bottom third of the country. However, it could target new free schools within opportunity areas and “category 5 and 6” areas – a set of local authority districts where children make the least progress and have the poorest access to high-quality schools.  

'No excuses' model

Toby Young, the director of the New Schools Network, told Tes it was “not surprising” the Social Mobility Action Plan touched on free schools.

“If you look at this year’s GCSE results for free schools like Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford, Tauheedul Islam Boys' High School in Blackburn and King’s Leadership Academy in Warrington, it is not surprising that free schools feature in the Social Mobility Action Plan,” he said.

“These schools have demonstrated that the American ‘no excuses’ model, which has proved so effective at raising the attainment of disadvantaged students in cities like New York, Boston and Chicago, is equally effective at raising attainment in some of England’s most deprived areas.”

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