Free schools have failed to reach the lowest-performing areas of the country and their performance in primary test scores has been poor, according to a think-tank report published today.
The report, by the Education Policy Institute, warns that the flagship government programme has not reached areas with historically low educational attainment – such those with deprived, white, working-class communities – in significant numbers.
Former government minister and EPI executive chairman David Laws said the report shows that the free-schools policy has failed to target areas of the country with the most underperformance.
Free schools: Policy supporters admit to key problems
Quick read: 'I want free schools to help other schools'
Analysis by the EPI shows that secondary free schools have created almost four times more new places in the strongest-performing areas of the country than in the worst-performing areas.
The report also raises concerns about the academic performance of free schools. It says that average pupil attainment in primary free schools is among the lowest of all state-funded schools.
The EPI says that, in contrast, secondary school progress has been very good – but says this is partly explained by the numbers of pupils that free schools take from high-performing areas.
Mr Laws, who was a schools minister in the coalition government, said: “The free-schools programme was primarily designed to improve access to good quality school places, and this report shows there are some notable successes.
“But the programme seems to have failed to effectively target the parts of England with the worst school performance, including in many white, working-class, areas.
“While many free schools are located in areas of economic disadvantage, in some of these areas children actually do quite well in school already. If additional money is to be allocated to this programme, it needs to have more impact on the truly left-behind educational areas of England”.
The report follows prime minister Boris Johnson’s commitment to open more free schools.
Are free schools going where they are needed?
The EPI study looked at whether free schools, which first started opening in 2011, were being set up in areas with a shortage of school places and areas with a lack of "high-quality school places".
It found that free schools have successfully increased school places at primary level, having added 11 places per 1,000 pupils in areas with the greatest demand compared with four extra places per 1,000 in low demand areas.
However, secondary free schools have only added four places per 1,000 pupils in these areas with high demand, compared with 15 extra places per 1,000 pupils in low demand areas.
The EPI also looked at whether free schools were achieving the aim of targeting areas with a demand for more places and a lack of high-quality schools.
It found that secondary free schools have failed to reach these poor-performing areas.
According to the EPI, just five places per 1,000 have been created in the lowest-performing areas by secondary free schools, while in contrast, 18 places per 1,000 pupils have been created in the highest-performing areas.
The report recommends that any expansion of the free-schools programme should be targeted towards areas where pupil outcomes are low.
Jon Andrews, the EPI's deputy head of research, said: “The intakes of high-performing free schools are often very different from other schools.
"Given the complex relationships between pupil characteristics and outcomes, we need to be cautious about jumping to conclusions about the efficacy of the approaches employed by these schools – whether that is in regard to curriculum, teaching, or behaviour – and the extent to which they are transferable to other schools.
“If the government’s aim in education is to ‘level-up’ opportunity across the country, then it needs to improve outcomes in areas with entrenched underperformance. These areas have not been well served by the free-schools programme."