Free schools are “socially selective” and “reproduce social-economic inequalities”, researchers have concluded.
A new study found that free schools admit intakes which are more affluent than the average for the neighbourhoods from which they recruit, and that in many cases they lead to a loss of pupils at the closest school.
The research, which was carried out by Rebecca Allen and Rob Higham from the UCL Institute of Education, looked at attendance at free schools and what impact they had on neighbouring schools for the first five annual waves of free school openings.
According to the study, free schools are located in areas with above-average deprivation and their intake is generally more affluent than the neighbourhoods from which they recruit.
Free schools had a lower proportion of pupils who are eligible for free school meals than the neighbourhoods from which they recruit in every year of each of the five waves. The one exception was secondary free schools in the third year of wave three of the programme, where the FSM proportion was the same as their neighbourhoods.
The report says that primary free schools, in particular, are more affluent than their recruitment neighbourhoods, and also have higher a prior attainment profile.
Looking at different types of free schools, the researchers found that every category of free school provider has opened schools with populations more affluent than their neighbourhoods – with the sole exception of academy chains.
In terms of the impact on nearby schools, they found that in rural areas the opening of a primary free school is associated with a fall of 5.4 pupils in the reception year intake at the nearest school, and a fall of 3-4 pupils at other neighbouring schools. The researchers could see no impact on pupil rolls in towns and cities at this phase.
At secondary level, in rural areas, the opening of a free school is associated with a fall of 16 pupils in the Year 7 role at the nearest school – the equivalent of half a form class.
In towns, it is associated with a fall of 16 pupils at the nearest school, with other neighbouring schools losing two to three pupils.
While there was no impact on the closest secondary school in cities, the researchers found that other neighbouring schools in the city lose between four and seven pupils after the opening of a secondary free school.
The authors conclude by saying that free school that “free schools in England join a growing list of market-based school diversity reforms that reproduce socio-economic inequalities through social selection”.
Allen, R. and Higham, R. (2018) ‘Quasi-markets, school diversity and social selection: Analysing the case of free schools in England, five years on’. London Review of Education, 16 (2): 191–213. DOI https://doi.org/10.18546/LRE.16.2.02