Jonathan Simons is Head of Education at Policy Exchange.
It is often forgotten that the Conservatives first committed to the principle of ‘free schools’ free from local council control in their 2001 manifesto. It is even more frequently forgotten – not least by the Labour party – that Tony Blair explicitly committed to them in the 2005 Schools White Paper. But a combination of Labour electoral strength (in 2001) and weakness (from 2005 onwards) meant that it was only in 2010, with the advent of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education, that parents and communities across the country were given the opportunity to bid to set up new schools.
Even before the first bids were in, the whole plan was being loftily dismissed. Parents, we were told, would simply not have time to set up these institutions. Most people were very happy with their local schools. And even if some parents or teachers or charities clubbed together and put in a bid, they would almost certainly be – shudder – middle class, looking simply to provide a get out for their little darlings. And such new schools would do nothing for the local community. All in all, the policy was bound to be a failure, wasn’t it?
Yet today, not even five years later, the Prime Minister is announcing the latest wave of successful bids to open schools. There are now over 400 Free Schools open or approved – twice as many as there were academies opened under the last government, and in half the time. This monumental achievement is the product of many hard months and years worth of work by over 1,500 groups of teachers, parents, charities, community groups and existing schools (and which, incidentally, are eight times more likely to be in the poorest areas of the country than the richest).
The other consequence of such controversy is that many people on both sides of the argument have made snap judgements of the impact of these schools before they have been fully established. Perhaps most importantly, none of the analysis so far looks at what the greatest potential impact for Free Schools could be, which is their effect other local schools and their wider community. That is what today’s new report from Policy Exchange does.
Our headline conclusion was that, contrary to many of the fears of the sceptics, Free Schools have had a positive impact on many of the schools around them. Overall – contrary to dismissive claims – opening Free Schools has not seen a collapse of local provision. Schools close to them have performed in line with national and local averages at primary, and better at secondary.
But the real magic appears when you dig underneath the headline performance. In every year (other than 2010, when 16 primary Free Schools were approved), the opening of a Free School is associated with substantial gains in performance of the lowest performing primary schools nearby, above and beyond national gains in similar type of schools.
At secondary level, this positive impact exists for all schools with below average results in each year from 2011 onwards. We also found some greater positive impact on local primary schools that already have surplus places, and ones with highest numbers of pupils on Free School Meals. In other words, competition – that horrible C word – appears to be having an impact, and it is benefitting those who are suffering the most under the current arrangements the most.
This finding has some important conclusions for the future policy environment. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have all pledged to maintain a role for new providers to set up schools if they are in power after May. But both Labour and the Lib Dems would change the rules so that new schools could only set up where they are ‘needed’ (by which they mean ones in which there is a shortage of actual school places).
Our report suggests that this would be a mistake for three important reasons. First, because some of the positive area wide impacts that could be credited to Free Schools are taking place in areas where there are surplus places already, which would disappear.
Second, because areas which need new school places tend to have two features in common; they are no wealthier than areas with existing surplus places, but they already achieve better results (largely because parents are already voting with their feet and sending their children to these better schools which then become oversubscribed). So any focus on new schools in these areas would simply give more to those who have more already.
And, third, because a message that says to parents “you cannot have a new school, because there are some empty places in your local area already, even though you don’t want to send your children there” is a profoundly anti-democratic and condescending message. We estimate that there are over two million children in schools today across England that performing below average, but where parents cannot take practical steps to help improve performance and set up a new school if they want. Politicians of all parties need to recognise that a Hobson’s choice approach to schools is not acceptable.
In politics, things tend to change only very slowly. While huge numbers of policy recommendations hit the public consciousness through the media all the time, it is rare to see major changes enacted. It is even rarer to see those changes having a positive visible impact. With Free Schools, after just a few years, we are starting to see benefits both for the children that attend them, as well as for those that attend nearby schools. All of the parties should commit to an expansion of the programme. The fact is that they are working.
A Rising Tide: The Competitive Benefits of Free Schools is issued today by Policy Exchange and available via their website.