The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Free Schools – an integral part of England’s education landscape

In 2010, the coalition Government invited parents, teachers, businesses, charities and existing schools to establish new schools across the country, and the free school programme was born. Since 2009, NSN (New schools Network), the organisation that I run, has sought to empower local groups to demand something different and better for the children in the area. And we have had amazing results. Free schools are more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted, are the highest performing type of state school at key stages one, four and five, and pupils who receive free school meals perform better in free schools than any other type of school.

Outstanding schools with original approaches, such as Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School in Blackburn and Marine Academy Primary in Plymouth, are driving up the standard of education available to local children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Both free schools are located in deprived areas, and take drastically different approaches to education, but both are rated Outstanding with impressive results and progress scores well above local and national averages.

It is evident that free schools have the potential to empower communities, inject innovation into the system and tackle chronic educational underperformance in parts of the country that have been left behind.

Unity Howard

Special and alternative provision (AP) free schools such as Churchill Special School and Derby Pride Academy, which was established by a group of local teachers, are playing a crucial role in supporting some of society’s most vulnerable young people. Staff at Churchill Special School work hard to develop each pupil’s language and literacy skills to reduce stress and anxiety in children with speech, language, communication and interaction needs. Meanwhile, 95% of Derby Pride Academy pupils achieved Level 1 English and maths GCSE this year, compared to the national average of 18.9% for AP/PRU. These schools are tailored to meet the needs of the children that attend them, and go above and beyond to provide an excellent education for each and every pupil.

This has shown that when you put responsibility in the hands of communities, trust leaders and head teachers- free schools can be transformative. But, over time, the Government’s stated mission for the programme has changed. We have seen a decline in the number of innovative proposals and applications from new providers approved by the Department for Education.

This summer, we launched our report ‘Free schools: The next 10 years’ which identified seven recommendations to reinvigorate the free schools policy. A decade’s experience has taught us a lot about what works – and, perhaps more importantly, what does not. Now that a variety of approaches to free school approvals have been tried and tested, it is time to return to the programme’s original vision. Non-negotiables exist around good governance and financial management, but the education system requires genuine innovation and competition to drive progress and dynamism.

Free schools were meant to be trailblazers and pioneers, offering an innovative approach to education and spreading excellence across the country. The programme is so much more than a vehicle to deliver school places. Free schools have the power to transform the lives of the children who attend them. That’s why, while we need many more free schools in areas which have been left behind and are underperforming, new schools also need to offer something different, be grounded in their community and provide parents with more choice on how to educate their child. Unless evidence-led innovation and diversity of provision is encouraged, the education system is at risk of stagnating and undermining parental choice.

The Government needs to empower more parents, teachers and communities to make a substantial and long-term change for children in their area -encouraging new providers to enter the system for applicant groups who are offering something new. This will be targeted in areas of underperformance and high disadvantage, to make sure that they submit the strongest possible proposal to the DfE and realise the policy’s original spirit of community and innovation. But the important thing is that these new hubs of innovation will work in collaboration, not competition, with the rest of the sector.

We are also calling for a dedicated AP application wave to give more pupils who, for whatever reason, are not thriving in mainstream the opportunity to reach their full potential.

It is evident that free schools have the potential to empower communities, inject innovation into the system and tackle chronic educational underperformance in parts of the country that have been left behind. Alongside the academies programme, free schools have now become an integral part of England’s education landscape, and it would be an injustice to lose sight of the policy’s original purpose, just ten years after its inception, when the surface has barely been scratched.

The New Schools Network (NSN) seeks to improve the quality of education across the country by supporting talented individuals and organisations in the establishment and long-term success of new free schools in their communities. Through the Academy Ambassadors programme, NSN strengthens governance by placing high caliber business leaders as non-executive directors on local academy trust boards.