Clash of the manifestos: are free schools working?

Published: 27th Apr 2015

"We will end the wasteful and poorly performing Free Schools programme"—Labour manifesto

"There are over 250 new free schools [...] delivering better education for the children who need it most"—Conservative manifesto

Academies and, therefore free schools, are funded directly by the Department for Education (DfE) rather than local authorities. They have more freedoms than other schools—such as not having to follow the national curriculum. Free schools are intended to be set up with the support of local groups.

Clearly, Labour and the Conservatives disagree on how well they're doing. It's too early to tell.

There are currently 254 free schools open, although many are still filling up year by year. Only 76 have been inspected by Ofsted. 24% were rated 'outstanding', a further 49% rated 'good', while 24% were rated as 'requires improvement' and 4% as 'inadequate'. Two free schools were judged inadequate and had their funding terminated by the DfE (so are closed). One further school was judged inadequate and closed to re-open under a new sponsor. It is yet to be inspected. These three schools are not included in the figures for inspection judgements.

We cannot reliably compare these results to the results for local authority schools.

Very different numbers of each kind of school have been inspected: only 76 free schools and 17,285 local authority schools. Apart from the small number of free schools, we've also only got inspection results for a third of them.  So we don't know whether these will be similar to the remaining two thirds, whereas we have results for a large proportion of local authority schools. The small number also means that the proportion rated outstanding may be volatile, as the DfE has pointed out.

There are official key stage two results for just 14 primary free schools so far, compared to data for 13,000 local authority maintained primary schools, and official GCSE results for just 10 secondary free schools, compared to 1,400 local authority schools.

The primary school release states that "the number of free schools with pupils at the end of key stage 2 is too small to allow robust conclusions to be drawn about their performance at the end of key stage 2".

Labour has also criticised the free schools programme for not being targeted at creating school places in areas of need. The government has argued that free schools are helping to meet demand.

A report published by the Public Accounts Committee last year stated that no applications to open primary free schools had been submitted in half of areas with a high or severe forecast need for extra school places.

A National Audit Office report from 2013 said that about 70% of the estimated 114,000 primary and secondary places opened or due to be open in free schools so far are in areas forecasting either high, severe, or moderate need for places.

As of 2014/15 many free schools aren't operating at full capacity and haven't been open long enough to fill up with pupils in every year group—so not all of these 114,000 places may be available yet.

Since then, the Department for Education has made basic need for places part of the assessment criteria (rather than 'context') by which free school applications are considered.

We've got more information on free schools and whether they're meeting the need for school places in our school places briefing.



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