“Free schools fail to serve the neediest” Evidence challenges benefits of free schools.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has pledged a further 500 free schools would be opened in England in the next five years under a Conservative government. This would mean the creation of an extra 270,000 school places in free schools, if re-elected, by 2020. The prime minister says these state-funded, start-up schools are “raising standards and restoring discipline”.

Commenting on David Cameron’s plans to expand the number of free schools, Professor Stephen Gorard at the School of Education, Durham University said: 

“We do not know whether free schools are any good in themselves. Overall, the result is that other schools near free schools make about the same amount of progress as expected and as the national average. Whatever else may be going on the overall ‘impact’ is zero sum.”

Commenting on the Policy Exchange report on Free Schools Professor Stephen Gorard added:

“The report does not examine whether free schools are effective themselves. The Select Committee has deemed it too early to tell. The report also does not mention the spectacular failures of some new free schools of a kind that never happens with local authority schools.

Overall, their headline result is that other schools near free schools make about the same amount of progress as expected and as the national average.

Their analysis within quartiles does not stand up because there are so few free schools in each year that dividing them into 4 further groups leads to volatility. And they are compared to 3 neighbouring schools, meaning that on average there is less than one neighbouring school being compared to each free school per quartile.

Therefore the dangers of free schools are being run for no apparent gain.”​

Free schools are failing to serve the neediest children in their areas, according to a study from UCL Institute of Education , published in August last year.

The study shows that schools in this flagship Government programme are opening in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but are taking fewer poor children (those receiving free meals) than the other local schools.

The net effect is that the free secondary school pupils themselves are close to average for all English secondary schools, and the free primary school pupils very slightly better off.

In addition, primary children who enter free schools are academically ahead of their peers. They have significantly higher levels of attainment than the average not only for their neighbourhoods, but for the country as a whole. When it comes to evaluating the performance of primary free schools, it will be important to examine their value added, rather than their academic outcomes, which are likely to be better than average because of their intakes, says the study.

Francis Green, Professor of Labour Economics and Skills Development at the Institute who led the research said:

“It appears that, so far, the places in Reception at free primary schools are being filled by children who are somewhat less disadvantaged and more advanced in their development than the average. This outcome may be disappointing for the government, which had hopes that its free schools policy would be a vehicle for delivering social justice.”

In January , following the publication of an education select committee report on free schools and academies, Professor Becky Francis, who advised the committee, and is Professor of Education and Social Justice, King’s College London said:

“As noted in the Select Committee report, the evidence on whether or not academies have had more success in raising attainment than other equivalent schools is mixed, and hard to pin down.

Assessment is complicated by the proliferation of different types of academies, and their very different circumstances when they became academies.

For example, sponsor academies were usually low-attaining schools, often located in areas of disadvantage; for converter academies, it’s the opposite.

This makes analysing both attainment and improvement across academies quite difficult: low achieving schools have more room for improvement; and likewise successful schools would be expected to have high levels of attainment.

It is really too early to judge the impact of academisation on converter academies.

For sponsor academies, including those instigated prior to 2010, the evidence is mixed. Overall, evidence suggests a slight improvement against similar local authority schools for those open the longest; although there has been a particular reliance on equivalent qualifications in sponsor academies.

Looking at the picture more closely, we see both examples of striking success, but also of significant failure – this was also the finding of research on the success or otherwise of academy chains.

These findings highlight the need for greater rigour and transparency in the system, especially, closer checks on those sponsors coming into the system, and firmer action with those that do not succeed in securing improvement.

But also, they support the impetus for a renewed focus on the quality of teaching practice in all schools, in contrast to the preoccupation with structures in our education system.”

Note to journalists: The research into academy chains (7th paragraph) was carried out by Becky Francis, Merryn Hutchings and Rob De Vries.​

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