Ten years ago this month, Mark Lehain, a former headteacher, was feeling deflated. His attempt to become one of the first free school leaders after the election of the coalition government had just been put on hold.
“We had lots of support, but we couldn’t secure the site in time, so people were applying for a school that didn’t exist,” he recalls. To cap it all he had to spend the evening of the decision at a protest meeting about the proposed new school to which, he says, opponents had been bussed in from all over England.
Lehain’s school – the Bedford free school – eventually opened the following year. After a shaky start – its first inspection judged the school to require improvement – it now boasts an outstanding Ofsted and strong results.
But 10 years on from the first 24 schools opening their doors in 2011, the record of this contentious flagship policy, designed to encourage new school providers, innovation and more parental choice, is less clear.
By December 2020 there were 557 free schools, out of a total of 24,000 schools, with a further 229 in the pipeline. The average cost is thought to have risen way above the £3m for each school promised by Michael Gove; several have cost more than £30m and the most pricey, the Harris Westminster sixth form, reportedly cost almost £50m to set up.
Scores of free schools have either closed or been “rebrokered” to new academy chains, and others have been dogged by claims of poor planning and inadequate buildings. For every success story there have been spectacular failures, such as the Al-Madinah free school in Derby, which closed two years after it opened, or the Bradford Kings Science academy, whose founder was convicted of defrauding the government.
One of the most arresting features of the programme, the idea that parents or teachers could set up their own schools, has all but fizzled out. In spite of high-profile early examples, such as the free schools opened by the commentator Toby Young and teachers such as Lehain and Katharine Birbalsingh, whose Michaela community school was set up in 2014, the number overall has dwindled.
According to National Foundation for Education Research, by 2018 the vast majority of free schools were set up by multi-academy trusts, existing schools, or faith groups. Only about a third of free schools were “innovator” schools, with a novel approach to the curriculum or ethos. NFER concluded that “in reality the free school programme has been a vehicle by which new schools are opened by academy chains”.
Moreover, free schools, which have more autonomy and flexibility than maintained schools, are barely mentioned by ministers these days. So much so that Unity Howard, director of the New Schools Network, a charity set up to support free schools, went public with her disappointment that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, overlooked the programme in his recent spending review.
One reason for that may be that the consequences of opening new schools in areas where they were not needed is still being felt. In one corner of Suffolk, the abolition of middle schools meant a number of sites became available for free school bids, even though the area already had enough school places.
Jeremy Rowe, and academy chain CEO who was a secondary school head at the time, thinks the impact of the new free schools in Suffolk is still being felt today. “I have no problem with new schools if they meet a need for new places, but there was no need for extra capacity at that time,” he says. “The market is very inelastic in rural areas like ours. Pupils aren’t mobile like they are in the cities, so if new schools are opened but aren’t needed, you are definitely going to affect another school.”
In 2015, pupils at another local school, the Alde Valley academy, now part of Rowe’s Waveney Valley academies trust, went public with its concerns about the impact of the new free schools, as its budgets and courses were cut. Even today there are surplus places at Alde Valley and Seckford free schools in Saxmundham and Beccles.
And the record on school standards is mixed. According to the New Schools Network, free schools are more likely to be rated outstanding than other types of school, and when the early free schools GCSE results were published in 2017 Young, who founded West London free school, proclaimed that free schools were “the most successful education policy of the postwar period”.
But the Education Policy Institute, which has been tracking attainment and progress in free schools since 2017, suggests a more nuanced picture, in which primary free schools perform below the national average but secondary free schools perform above.
Moreover, EPI found that when free schools were established in deprived areas, these were in places where pupils were already performing well, rather than in “challenged white communities”, where educational outcomes are lower. Even when free schools were in poorer areas, they did not always admit the most disadvantaged pupils. On average they have fewer children eligible for free school meals than their local communities.
For Melanie Carvalho, an editor on the Guardian’s obituaries desk and the parent of two children, the intersection of parental choice and free schools is personal. Her children started at a diverse local state primary school, Dog Kennel Hill, in south London, in 2014. “As a mixed-race parent who suffered from normalised racist attitudes during my own school days, I wanted to live in a multicultural area and send my children, even though they are white, to a school with black and brown kids. Our school is warm and friendly with incredible music and drama provision and my children have thrived there,” she says.
In 2016, a free primary school, the Belham school, opened down the road. “It leafleted local streets of Victorian terraces and the nearby private nursery appealing to predominantly middle-class parents with its promise of a ‘glittering curriculum’ and ‘outstanding education’. Its first intake was predominantly white, middle-class children. To see the tousle-headed children crocodile down the road to the library or park, was disconcerting. Where were the black children, I wondered?”
The free school eventually expanded, even though there was no need for new places, leading to what Carvalho describes a “flurry of white flight”, which affected other local schools. “As I and many BAME families walked up the hill to our school, the white kids were careering down it on their micro-scooters,” she says.
Today the difference in the social makeup of the two schools is startling. According to School Dash, which monitors pupil segregation, the Belham (free) primary school has only 7% children eligible for free school meals compared with 24% locally, and 70% pupils from white British background compared with 19% in most other local schools. At Dog Kennel Hill a fifth of pupils are eligible for free school meals and fewer than a fifth are from white British backgrounds.
Carvalho believes there should be controls built into the system so that new schools reflect the makeup of the communities they serve. “I see a diverse school population as a positive,” she says. “Why wouldn’t other parents feel the same?”
So has the whole project been worthwhile? Lehain, who stood down as head of the Bedford school in 2017, is adamant that the programme delivered what early advocates expected, although he says the government’s “appetite for risk” declined significantly after Gove left the DfE in 2014.
“We showed that you can open schools more quickly than the traditional route and brought in new providers,” he says. “Several schools, like Michaela, have had a big impact by systematising innovative practices from which others can learn.”
The budget for free schools has been tightened in recent years, with an emphasis on the need for more places, but the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, is reported to want to “re-energise” the programme. Howard of the New Schools Network believes the next phase should tie in with the government’s “levelling up” agenda.
“There is strong evidence of free school success in urban areas, but that hasn’t been spread evenly across the country,” she says. “We would like to see free schools as part of a wider strategy to improve education as in areas with entrenched underperformance.”
But even that sort of transformation is not a given. Tom Richmond, a former DfE adviser who is now director of the education thinktank EDSK, says there is little hard evidence to conclude that free schools have improved the overall performance of the education system, in spite of substantial political and financial investment.
“If free schools are created for the right reasons in the right places, they still have the potential to tackle underperformance in the most deprived parts of the country and improve the quality of provision for many vulnerable pupils,” he says. “However, if the free schools programme does not reach the families and areas that need it the most, a considerable amount of money will be spent with little to show for it.”