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'Free schools are part of the solution to ease pressure on places, not the problem'

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

As parents of three and four-year-olds across the country submit their primary school choices and start the anxious 13-week wait to hear which school they are allocated, the case for new schools is once again thrown into sharp relief.

Last year, nearly 15 per cent of parents failed to get their first choice of school, rising to almost 20 per cent in London – and worse, 33 per cent for those living in inner London.

The principle cause is well known: an acute shortage of school places across the country with the biggest problems in primary schools. With research showing that 1.4 million parents would have preferred their child to have secured a place at another school, the scramble for places has gone from being a tense game of musical chairs to the equivalent of winning a golden ticket when it comes to securing those prized places at the best local primaries.

There are now 135 primary free schools opened or approved and they are already helping to ease the pressure in the system. Last September, 90 per cent of newly opening primary free schools were in areas where there is a projected shortfall of places, and in London every single new primary is opening in an area which is either already experiencing problems or faces a shortage imminently.

And if you take a look at where newly approved free schools are opening, 96 per cent of those providing primary places are in areas where there is a projected need for more. Free schools are not the only answer to the current places shortage but they are certainly part of the solution.

Furthermore, free schools aren’t just helping address the outright shortage of places; they are also addressing the shortfall of good school places. Out of all primary free schools, including those approved to open, 91 per cent are in the areas where results are poorest. Here, free schools are also having an impact by driving up local standards – with their pupils directly (70 per cent of free schools are judged by Ofsted to be either good or outstanding), but also through neighbouring schools raising their game and local schools, including free schools, working effectively together.

A recent survey of open free schools found that over 70 per cent of heads believe they are having a wider impact locally – a third of these believe that this is being driven by competition, and a further third believe it is collaboration that is making a difference.

One head reported that one of his peers in a local school has openly stated at a headteachers' meeting that “the opening of our school made him re-evaluate his provision and raise attainment at GCSE by 25 per cent”. Others report imitation as the highest form of flattery, with local schools adopting similar practices and approaches to those introduced by the free school – longer school days and new subjects in the curriculum for instance.

But collaboration was seen as equally important. Already 84 per cent of open free schools have formalised partnerships with their neighbouring schools or plan to do so. What’s more, three quarters of open free schools have provided support to their peers, with externally run CPD courses and joint practice development by far the most common types of support. Others allow use of the school’s facilities or share specialist subject teachers. One school – Marine Academy in Plymouth – even shares its headteacher with a local authority school nearby.

These examples are a long way off from what you might expect given the cries of foul play from the critics. Regular claims are made that free schools are not opening in areas where there is a lack of school places.

Another charge laid at the door of free schools is that having opened in areas where they are neither wanted nor needed, they become independent republics, turning their backs and setting themselves against the system. Neither is true. The overwhelming majority of free schools are opening in areas where there aren’t enough places to go around. More importantly, however, whether free schools are opening in areas where there is a shortage of places or not, they are committed to collaborating, supporting and sharing expertise with neighbouring schools.

I for one am confident that this approach will improve standards across communities, benefitting all their local children.

Related stories:

Free schools not reaching the poorest, study finds - 7 August 2014

A quarter of free schools open in areas with no need for extra places, report finds -11 December 2013 

‘Why I believe in free schools and why I plan to open more’ - 25 November 2013

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