Why we need to jumpstart the free-schools programme

Boris Johnson's announcement of a new wave of free schools is welcome, says Unity Howard – but it does not go far enough

Unity Howard

Boris Johnson needs to lift the cap on the number of free schools that can be opened, says Unity Howard, director of New Schools Network

It is fair to say that the free-schools programme has stalled somewhat over the past few years. And so I will applaud any move to reinvigorate it.

It is brilliant that the prime minister has announced a new wave of free schools. The call to arms for parents, teachers and community groups focused in areas that have not yet benefited from the policy is a welcome message, revitalising the founding principles of the free-schools programme. 

But I will confess to feeling that this could have gone further.  

Free schools have the potential to transform educational standards in the areas that most need it. But setting a cap of 30 schools for this wave just doesn’t go far enough. This announcement means that some communities will get the opportunity to offer places at a great new school, while far too many will continue to languish with no prospect of improvement.

Free schools 'significantly behind'

We now have 505 free schools open across the country. This is a remarkable achievement, but it is nowhere near what it could have been.

During the 2015 general-election campaign, the Conservative Party pledged to open at least 500 free schools over the course of the Parliament. However, four years on from that original commitment, we find ourselves significantly behind this number

Since 2015, 272 new schools have opened their doors, barely over the halfway mark of the stated target. Had that target been met, there would be 732 free schools open today.

We know that free schools work – this summer’s results show that. This is precisely why we welcome the reinvigoration of the policy. But we need it to go further. 

In a short space of time, the free schools that have opened have spread educational opportunity to some of the country’s most deprived areas, transforming the lives of tens of thousands of young people. These brand new schools have raised standards and introduced bold new approaches to our education system. 

Original approaches

Schools with original approaches, such as Oasis Academy South Bank and The Swanage School, are driving up local educational standards. Oasis Academy, which is based in a highly deprived area of South London, and The Swanage School, which serves pupils in a rural area of Dorset, play an active role in their communities, and post results well above local and national averages.

New providers are stepping up to the plate, wanting to play their part in improving the educational landscape. Just from the schools opening this year, London Screen Academy – established by Working Title Films in partnership with ELAM, a free-school forebear – will give young people the opportunity to get their foot in the door of the film and television industry. Meanwhile, West Bromwich Collegiate Academy, which is supported by Microsoft, and Skol Nansledan in Newquay, will prepare their pupils for the future, with a strong focus on Stem subjects and sustainable development.

But, over time, the schools approved by the Department for Education have typically been less innovative and pioneering in their thinking and approach. Innovation was one of the most exciting calling cards of the free-schools movement, but in recent years the success rate of applicants with innovative models has fallen off a cliff edge. Similarly, although parents, teachers and community groups can still apply, in wave 13, all 22 of the new schools that were approved were proposed by academy trusts.

Vulnerable young people

The government’s recognition that innovation must play a part in the free-schools programme is, therefore, hugely welcome, as is the recognition that proposals for special educational needs and disabilities and alternative-provision schools will be a priority. 

Alternative-provision schools like ContinU Plus Academy, which was set up by a charity and a group of mainstream schools in Worcestershire, are using innovative techniques to transform the life chances of excluded and at-risk young people. Meanwhile, special schools such as Lighthouse School, in Leeds, are providing the bespoke specialist provision needed for its pupils with SEND to thrive.

Notwithstanding these stand-out successes, not a single new AP free school has been approved since 2017, and the current application wave is inviting only two bids for AP, compared with 37 for special. It is encouraging to hear alternative provision highlighted in the prime minister’s announcement. But the government must show that it is serious about investing in the futures of vulnerable young people, by ensuring that some of these schools come through the process.

Overall, we need more investment for all areas of the programme. For free schools to spread educational excellence and unlock young people’s potential where it is needed most, more are needed across the country, especially in areas that are yet to benefit, like northern, rural and coastal areas. 

New Schools Network’s report, "Free schools: the next 10 years", highlighted the risk of the momentum behind the policy stalling, and we asked the new government to pledge to open 100 new free schools a year. Anything less than this will not be enough, if we want to drive up standards across the country; there are too many communities that have been out of sight and out of mind for way too long.

As well as numbers, a return to the programme’s original vision will have the greatest impact. Free schools are levelling the playing field when it comes to school standards, helping to deliver good school places up and down the country. For this now to happen in the areas that need them most, performance, community engagement and innovation must be at the heart of the DfE’s future free-school assessment process. 

It is encouraging that the prime minister has called upon parents and community groups to step up to the plate, but they must be reassured that they have a chance of success when they do.

Unity Howard is the director of New Schools Network

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