Free schools are failing to fulfil the programme’s original vision of being innovative or parent-led, according to new research published today.
The study shows that both primary and secondary free schools have lower proportions of disadvantaged pupils than their catchment areas.
However, the disadvantaged pupils who go to secondary free schools perform slightly better than similar pupils at other types of school by GCSE.
The Sutton Trust and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) which published the findings, have now called on ministers to review and clarify the purpose of free schools.
It has also called for clarity on the relationship between the New Schools Network – the charity that supports new school bids – and regional schools commissioners and multi-academy trusts.
The findings follow a Tes investigation last month, which revealed that parent-led free schools have been in decline for each of the past six years to the point where none opened in 2017-18.
It showed how the original "Big Society" vision for free schools has been replaced with a system that allows established Mats to open new schools.
The new Sutton Trust and NFER research echoes these findings. It shows that only one in five free schools has had parents involved in its inception, and that the proportion of parent-led free schools has decreased over time.
Free For All? Analysing free schools in England, 2018 shows that the number of schools set up by parents was at its height in the early years of the programme, with parents involved in the launch of over 40 per cent of the secondary free schools opened between 2011 and 2013.
For the secondaries established since 2015, this proportion has dropped to less than 20 per cent. For primary and all-through free schools, the proportion has dropped from 32 per cent to just 4 per cent.
At the same time, the number of free schools run by Mats has increased. Mat involvement has jumped from around half of secondary free schools between 2011 and 2015 to more than three-quarters of those set up since 2015.
Overall, 178 free schools have now been set up by academy trusts – over half (59 per cent) of all free schools, the NFER and the Sutton Trust say.
When the free school programme was introduced, it was intended to bring innovation to the state school sector and drive up standards through greater parental choice.
'Smoke and mirrors'
However, today’s report shows that only one-third of established free schools have demonstrated a novel approach.
Of the 152 open primary free schools in England, 35 per cent were found to be innovative, compared with just 29 per cent of the 113 open secondary free schools.
These free schools were those found to be based on an innovative concept, which is central to their identity and ethos, and is widely embedded in the curriculum or in school activities.
For example, Judith Kerr Primary School, in London, is a bilingual school in which German language and culture is embedded throughout the curriculum. At the Rural Enterprise Academy in Staffordshire, students study subjects like agriculture and animal management, alongside academic subjects.
The new analysis also reveals that while many free-school pupils live in deprived areas, both primary and secondary free schools have slightly lower proportions of disadvantaged pupils than their catchment areas.
However, the disadvantaged pupils who go to secondary free schools perform slightly better than similar pupils at other types of school by GCSE. They achieve the equivalent of a quarter of a grade higher in each subject compared with their peers in other school types.
NFER chief executive Carole Willis said: “This report shows that the government’s free schools programme has not been very successful at bringing innovation to the education system and encouraging more parents and teachers to set up new schools.
“What it does highlight is that those new free schools that are opening are increasingly set up and led by multi-academy trusts and are used as a way to meet rising pupil numbers. So, if the government is still committed to the programme’s original purpose then it should review and clarify the mission of free schools.”
Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, said: “Free schools were supposed to bring new and innovative providers into the education sector, to drive up standards and improve school choice. But, as our research shows, very few are fulfilling that original purpose.
“Our research finds that while free schools are often located in disadvantaged areas, both primary and secondary free schools have lower proportions of disadvantaged pupils than their catchment areas. This is unacceptable. Free schools need to make serious efforts to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: “Free schools were marketed as an opportunity for parents and teachers to set up their own schools and provide ‘innovative’ educational opportunities.
"But, as this report makes clear, in recent years they have largely been established by multi-academy trusts and, in the majority of cases, provide much the same education as neighbouring schools.
"The notion of ‘increased parental choice’, which the free school programme claimed to offer, was simply smoke and mirrors."
Earlier this month, Mark Lehain, the interim director of the New Schools Network and director of the Parents and Teachers for Excellence group, argued that free schools had brought innovation.
Today he said: " As a parent and founder of a free school, I know how much the policy has allowed local communities to get the schools they want.
"The application process is tough, as you'd expect, and so it’s not surprising that so many groups of teachers and existing schools are stepping up to the plate to open new schools, often in response to wishes of local parents - it's very positive that the profession itself is now embracing the policy, and free schools are still the best way for innovation to flourish and voices of the community to be heard."
The DfE recently announced that it was inviting applications for the next wave of the free school programme in areas where they are most needed – including in disadvantaged areas.
The DfE has been approached for a comment.