Free Schools sound utopic in theory, but do they deliver in reality?
With an ability to set their own term dates and school times, freedom from the national curriculum and admittance of all children regardless of ability, the idea of free schools certainly sounded appealing when initially proposed.
First set-up as a stand-out policy by the 2010 Coalition government, the shadow education secretary at the time, Michael Gove, was responsible for their introduction under the 2010 Academies Act. Eight years on, has the system proved a success?
Labour’s Harnessing Technology Grant fund, creating digital infrastructure for schools, was diverted to fund Gove’s new innovation as upfront capital finance. The idea was that the schools would be set up by local parents, businesses and teachers as part of a not-for-profit model of education.
Similar to academies, which were first introduced as ‘city academies’ under the 2000 Learning and Skills Act, free schools appeared to break away from the traditional three-tiered system of grammar, secondary modern, and technical schools. Based on academic and technical competence, this tripartite system appeared to exclude those who were deemed less-gifted than the cream of crop. Academies and free schools in contrast presented a new, almost utopian-like structure of education.
The first 24 free schools opened in September 2011, increasing to 425 by the start of the 2016/17 school year, as reported by a House of Commons briefing paper. There appeared some demographic inconsistency with London originally setting up 130 free schools in contrast with 12 in the North East. Such numbers sparked criticism that the schools were being created in areas where they whey were not needed compared with other parts of the country.
Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised the nation 500 new free schools by 2020, which would increasing the total to 1000. Like schools under the watch of Local education authorities (LEAs), free schools would be under the supervision of Ofsted.
As these schools are funded by the taxpayer, there is an expectation that free schools should flourish so that public finances are not wasted on failed schemes. In reality though, a total of roughly £150 million has been lost, as calculated by the National Education Union in April, as 66 free schools were deemed unfit for service.
The NEU’s joint general secretary Mary Bousted, said at the time: “The government should hang its head in shame at this monumental waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when schools are severely underfunded.
“Although it trumpets the market as a model for education, no business would continue to throw good money after bad at what is clearly a failed school experiment.”
As we roll into the summer months, closures continue to take place in an increasingly scrutinised system. One example is the £9 million Discovery School in Newcastle after a poor Ofsted report, which highlighted a 14 year-old being left behind on a school trip to London, an absence of humanities, arts and foreign language subjects, as well as low pupil numbers.
It was widely reported that this school included a group of “riotous” pupils who were causing danger to others, and targeting vulnerable victims, often female.
Despite some negative headlines, there have also been free schools which offer quality education to a wider net of pupils than ever before, with 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding rated schools than there were in 2010. What’s more, free schools were identified as the best performing category of secondary school based on 2017 average Progress 8 scores.
Progress 8 was introduced by the government in 2016 in order to monitor the progress of pupils as they made the transition from primary to secondary school. Indeed, it compares key stage 4 results with those of other pupils on a national scale based on attainment prior to that point.
The Department for Education reported at the end of 2014/15 that 42 of the 158 free schools had been rated as outstanding by Ofsted, equating to 27 per cent. To contextualise, this figure was reportedly compared to a figure of 17 per cent for all maintained schools inspected by Ofsted that year.
Initially created as a means of promoting all-inclusive, hands-on involvement for local figures to run schools, the theory appeared to support devolution in which greater community involvement was fostered.
With there being a total of 74, 714 pupils attending free schools in January 2016, it appeared that the system was flourishing, with the figure almost doubling from the previous year. Yet this figure was minimal compared to the overall figure for all types of state-funded schools.
Criticism continues to be aimed at the manner in which free schools operate, not least the fact that teachers do not have to employ qualified teachers. A percentage total of 12.3 teachers without Qualified Teacher Status in primary free schools is four times higher than all types of primary schools.
There is clearly a long way to go for free schools to be securely cemented within the national educational structure, and issues such as poor Ofsted ratings, increasing closures and unqualified teachers certainly will not help. If the National Union of Teachers, publicly critical of the free schools programme, had their way, they would be abolished entirely, yet for now they are keeping their head above water.