Free school teachers 'achieve better GCSE results'

Teachers at free schools tend to be less experienced but their students perform better at key stage 4, report shows

Claudia Civinini

Free schools: Teachers at free schools achieve better GCSE results, says report

Teachers in free schools tend to be younger and less experienced than their peers in other types of school, according to a new report.

But despite their teachers' relative lack of experience, free school pupils achieve higher results at key stage 4 than in other types of schools, the report shows.

Published today to mark the 10 anniversary of the introduction of the free school programme, a report by the National Foundation for Educational Research shows that two-fifths of primary free school teachers were under 30 years of age, compared with a quarter of those in other primary schools.

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At secondary level, nearly a third were aged under 30, compared with one-fifth of teachers in other secondary schools.

Free schools 'have more NQTs'

Free schools also tended to have more newly qualified teachers than other schools.

However, their GCSE students achieved a tenth of a grade higher in each subject compared with their peers in other schools, once student and school-level characteristics were controlled for. 

But results for primary free schools were more "mixed", the NFER notes.

Teachers at free schools are also slightly less likely to stay put; the probability of a teacher in a free school leaving the state-funded sector was around two percentage points higher than in other schools, according to the report.

Looking into the 10 years since the programme's launch, the report also found that:
  • There is a higher proportion of free schools judged "outstanding" by Ofsted compared with other schools: 35 per cent of primary and all-through free schools inspected had an "outstanding" rating compared with 17 per cent for other primary schools. At secondary level, it was 26 per cent of free schools that were judged to be "outstanding", five percentage points higher than for other secondary schools.
  • Free school pupils are more likely to be of an ethic minority background, to come from disadvantaged families and to have a language other than English as their mother tongue.
  • Results are mixed in the primary phase: at key stage 1, free school pupils outperformed peers in other schools in maths, writing, science and reading (in 2018-19). At KS2, free school pupils were instead 7 per cent less likely to reach the expected standard than their peers in maths, reading and writing.
  • Results are mixed at KS5, too: students attending 16-19 free schools outperformed peers in other school types. However, sixth-form students in secondary and all-through free schools performed worse than their counterparts in other schools.
  • Free schools, both primary and secondary, are more popular than their neighbouring schools. Primary free schools received more first preferences from parents compared with other school types both in absolute terms and relative to the number of places available.

The report calls for further research into attainment at KS2 in free schools, and into the reason why teacher retention is lower than in other types of schools. 

Report author Jude Hillary said: “The free schools programme has been running for 10 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 the New Schools Network, said: “This year will mark ten years since the first free schools opened their doors. As we move in to the second decade of free schools, it’s important that policymakers properly reflect on the successes as well as the lessons learned when shaping the future direction for free schools.

“NFER’s research shows without question that the programme has been effective, highlighting the positive impact that free schools have had on local areas, particularly for disadvantaged students. As the highest performing type of state school at GCSE and A level, more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted, free schools must be at the heart of the ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’ agendas.

"Free Schools can help translate those policy ambitions into reality - now is the time for the Government to commit to ‘levelling up’ in action, and a new free school wave focused on the North and Midlands would do just that."


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Claudia Civinini

Claudia Civinini

Find me on Twitter @claudiacivinini

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