Free schools: Five key findings from today's EPI report

A new analysis of the free-schools programme raises concerns about the areas they serve and attainment at primary level

John Roberts

A new thinktank report looks at the record of free schools

A report published today into the government’s free-schools programme has examined where they are opening, how they perform and who attends them.

Here are five key findings from today’s report, published by the Education Policy Institute:

Report: Free schools 'are not reaching underperforming areas'

Background: Free school programme needs rebooting, says Gibb

Opinion: 'Against the odds, free schools are a success'

Free schools 'better at secondary'

The report says that pupil attainment at primary is poor, but progress in secondary is very good.

However, it says that this performance in secondary school is partially explained by the fact that free schools admit more pupils from high-performing areas.

The EPI  says that free-school pupils in 2018 scored below average results at the end of primary, but above average at the end of secondary.

It adds:  “Average pupil attainment in primary free schools is among the lowest of all state-funded schools. In sharp contrast, at secondary level, pupils in free schools make the most progress out of all state-funded schools.”

Secondary free schools have the highest Progress 8 scores of any state-funded school type, even after adjusting these figures to take into account their pupil characteristics.

Free schools are taking on disadvantaged pupils...

At both primary and secondary, free schools are successfully targeting economically disadvantaged areas in England, according to the EPI.

However, at primary level, free-school intakes are still more affluent than expected for their local areas. The proportion of pupils from poorer backgrounds (those eligible for free school meals) is 12. 5 per cent. If it matched the areas these schools served, it would be 15.4 per cent.

The EPI says that secondary free schools do have intakes that are generally reflective of their communities. The report says that 14 per cent of pupils are from poorer backgrounds, compared with 14.6 per cent in the areas these secondary free schools serve.

The report adds that when looking at the socioeconomic background of free-school pupils, “they are more likely to be described by the Office for National Statistics as ‘inner-city cosmopolitan’, ‘urban cultural mix’ and ‘young ethnic communities’ ”.

...But not reaching areas with poor results

While free schools are successful in taking on pupils from economically disadvantaged areas, the EPI found that the programme has “failed to reach those areas with historically low educational attainment – such as deprived, white, working-class communities – in significant numbers.”

It says that just five places per 1,000 pupils 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 highes- performing areas.

Free schools and SEND

The EPI analysis shows that a very small but growing proportion of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities are attending free schools.

In 2016, 0.3 per cent of pupils with statements of special educational needs or education health and care plans (EHCPs) were attending free schools.

By last year this figure had grown to 0.7 per cent by 2018.

The report notes that with 37 special free schools announced earlier this year, it can be expected that these figures will continue to increase.

The secret of success?

The report’s authors urge the Department for Education to consider why free schools have been successful when it looks to roll the same approaches out to other areas.

It suggests that the high performance of some free schools could actually be down to the pupils who attend them.

The report says: “Rather than aspects such as the curriculum, teaching or behavioural policies, high performance may instead be down to free schools’ intakes, and their admission of pupils from areas which typically perform very highly.”

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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