Today is a busy day for those of us with an interest in free schools. Provisional data released this morning shows that free schools are the highest-performing type of school at Progress 8 for the third year running.
But – despite being director of the organisation that exists to support free schools, the New School Network – I am not going to spend today shouting at the top of my voice that free schools are better than any other type of school. I will always defend the policy against its critics by pointing to the successes of the programme to date, but the time has come to stop criticising other schools in doing so.
This is important because today we have also seen the publication of the Education Policy Institute (EPI)’s latest assessment of the free schools programme. This highlights the programme’s achievements but also key areas for improvement, and we should accept both.
For many years free schools have been one of the most controversial topics in education. There are those who will say that they are the best thing since sliced bread; others will say they are a product of a diabolical plot to undermine every school and teacher in the country.
Why is this? For most people who have set up a free school, that isn’t how they would define themselves. It’s about their community, their ethos, their curriculum, their staff and – most importantly – their pupils.
Free schools are doing a brilliant job
The 507 that are open are a diverse bunch: schools as different as LIPA Sixth Form College in Liverpool with its performing and creative arts focus, and Shireland Technology Primary in the West Midlands, which uses technology-informed approaches to real-world problems. Focusing on them as one block – carbon copies of each other – doesn’t make sense. But it does open them up to criticism, despite the fantastic results they have posted today and the innovative approaches they have brought to education.
The thing is, they are clearly doing a brilliant job. Free schools are reaching some of England’s most economically deprived communities.
The Olive School, Blackburn, which is rated "outstanding" by Ofsted, has 77 per cent of pupils meeting the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, compared with 66 per cent for the local authority as a whole and 64 per cent for the rest of England. Meanwhile, Nishkam High School in Birmingham is also rated "outstanding", with 56 per cent of pupils graded 5 or above in English and maths GCSEs compared with the local authority average of 40.1 per cent.
Alternative-provision free schools
While the EPI’s analysis looks at the 34 special free schools that are open , the report fails to celebrate the successes of special and alternative provision (AP) free schools – one of the programme’s greatest accomplishments.
More than 4,404 AP places and 2,872 special school places have been created through the programme. That’s more than 7,000 vulnerable children and young people who might otherwise have been left with no option but to attend unregistered AP or be home-schooled. Special and AP free schools such as Churchill special school and Derby Pride Academy – where 80 per cent of pupils leave with five GCSEs compared with 12 per cent nationally in AP – are doing a fantastic job providing a good education to those in the greatest need of support.
Progress 8 data over the past few years shows that free schools work, and those schools that are celebrating these results today should be incredibly proud of what they have achieved. But while free schools have had some success in economically disadvantaged areas, the truth is that they have failed to reach those areas with historically low educational attainment – such as deprived, white, working-class communities – in significant numbers.
The above-average performance of disadvantaged pupils in secondary free schools demonstrates the policy's potential to transform educational outcomes and raise aspirations for those in the greatest need.
We agree with the EPI that new ones must open in areas suffering from chronic educational underperformance to support the communities that have been left behind.
We all like simple solutions, to point to a single systemic change that will solve the problem. If we abolish independent schools we will solve social justice; if we convert every school to be an academy all will become "outstanding" overnight; if we open thousands of free schools, every child will have a good school place. But these structural conversations aren’t serving us that well, and we have to start looking at how different school types can work together to provide the best possible education for all pupils.
Yes, we want hundreds more free schools approved over the coming years, but, most importantly, once they are open, free schools should work in collaboration with the existing school system to raise standards across the board. Free schools have brought in pockets of excellence, but it will be by working together with other providers that everyone will benefit from this programme – and perhaps then we can finally stop obsessing over school structures.
Unity Howard is director of the New Schools Network