August 2018


  • And breathe...
    Geoff Barton reflects on what has been another extremely busy year for school and college leaders, and says the summer will hopefully, for many, be a time to unwind with family and friends. More
  • Stress less
    As we continuously strive to improve and support the wellbeing of our pupils, we mustn't forget to ensure the health and welfare of our staff too, says Trust Director Julie Yarwood. More
  • Social media: Enjoy, engage or avoid?
    Whether you're developing a social media strategy for your school or college, reviewing existing policies, or managing your own online presence, Online Editor Sally Jack provides advice to help you navigate the social media maelstrom. More
  • Make the news
    By telling their story and knowing how to respond to bad news, schools and colleges can build a successful relationship with the media which can be a huge benefit to them, says ASCL's Head of Public Relations Richard Bettsworth. More
  • Free for all?
    New research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the Sutton Trust has found that pupils at secondary free schools perform slightly better than pupils at other types of schools, but is that the only thing we should judge them on? Karen Wespieser looks at the data. More
  • Pioneer programme
    The NPQEL programme offers multi-academy trust leaders a roadmap for leadership in this challenging new territory. Julie Nightingale reports. More
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New research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the Sutton Trust has found that pupils at secondary free schools perform slightly better than pupils at other types of schools, but is that the only thing we should judge them on? Karen Wespieser looks at the data.

Free for all?

Free schools were one of the coalition government’s flagship education policies when they were first introduced in 2010. They aimed to bring new and innovative providers – including parents and teachers – into a more autonomous and self-improving school system by driving up standards through greater school choice and increased competition. They also aimed to help improve performance, particularly in disadvantaged areas and where additional places are needed. Today, as the preferred model of new schools, they remain a key part of government education policy and are likely to continue to play an important role in future years.

Although the first free schools have been open for several years now, it’s still too early to evaluate their Key Stage 2 performance as they haven’t been open long enough to have pupils who have been educated solely by the free school. While it is also early days for secondary free schools, initial findings show that, at Key Stage 4, pupils at free schools perform slightly better than pupils with similar characteristics in other mainstream secondary schools. Furthermore, disadvantaged pupils in secondary free schools outperform their peers in other school types by the equivalent of one grade higher in three subjects. However, while initial results at Key Stage 4 are promising, they are still currently based on a relatively small number of pupils.

So beyond pupil outcomes, what else can we look at in terms of free school performance since their inception? Some answers to this are to look at the extent to which free schools meet their original policy intentions, whether they are being set up where they are needed and who is choosing to attend them.

Policy evolution

As free school advocates are keen to highlight, the policy’s early rationales included raising performance standards, and our research shows good early signs here. However, a core aim of the free school programme was the intention to encourage groups of parents to set up schools in their communities. The latest data shows that only one in five free schools set up to date has had parents involved in their inception. The number of schools with parental involvement was higher in the early years of the programme, with parents involved in the set-up of more than 40% of secondary free schools opened between 2011 and 2013, but, since 2015, this has dropped to less than 20%.

Another aim of the free school programme was to increase the number of schools with innovative approaches to their curriculum or ethos. However, only one-third of free schools were found to have demonstrated such an approach. Innovators have been more common in the primary sector, with 35% of 152 primary free schools that are still open found to be innovative, compared to 29% of 113 open secondary free schools.

Conversely, an increasing proportion of secondary free schools (and indeed schools overall) involve a multi-academy trust (MAT) in their establishment. The level of MAT involvement in secondary free schools has jumped from about 50% from 2011 to 2015, to more than 75% of all new secondary free schools since 2015.

It seems from this analysis that as free schools have now become the default model for new schools, with all new academies characterised as such, it has become a vehicle for the expansion of MATs. Free school creation is clearly evolving and it would therefore be a timely point for the government to review and clarify their mission.

In all the right places

The new research finds that free schools have largely been set up in areas with a need for more school places, but some primary areas have ended up with either more or less capacity than needed.

Almost all the secondary planning areas, which have had a free school opened from 2012/13 to 2016/17, had insufficient available capacity to meet its forecast need for secondary pupil places, with half of those having a severe need (where forecast demand outstripped supply by 20% or more). Conversely, in the early years of the free school programme, many of the primary free schools were opened in areas that already had enough school places. However, this has shifted over time, and, in recent years, most new primary free schools have been opened in areas with at least some need.

The report also finds that some primary planning areas, which have opened a new free school, now have excess capacity. Having excess capacity in a planning area may mean that the schools within them will be in direct competition to attract sufficient pupils to fill their available spaces. Schools that are not full to their capacity will receive less funding, which may lead to financial pressures, such as needing to draw down on reserves or make budget cuts. Prompt action needs to be taken to reduce surplus capacity, to avoid these issues from arising.

Researchers recommend that there should be better coordination and clearer lines of responsibility for local school planning. They also suggest that where surplus primary capacity now exists, it should be reviewed at a local level, with a view to converting it to secondary capacity if possible.

Voting with their feet

The research sought to find out more about the pupils who attend free schools and how they compare to their catchment areas. It found that free schools have lower proportions of disadvantaged pupils than their catchment areas but larger proportions of ethnic minority pupils. At secondary level, the over-representation of ethnic minority pupils in free schools is limited to free schools with a faith ethos, although this is not true of primary free schools.

Regarding the intake, the research recommends that free schools should endeavour to be more representative of their communities. They suggest that as part of the funding agreements for new free schools, there should be an expectation that they actively recruit disadvantaged and other underrepresented groups of pupils so that free schools reflect the diversity of their local communities.

About the research

The research Free for All? Analysing free schools in England, 2018 was published by NFER and the Sutton Trust in May 2018. It combines secondary data analysis using multiple government datasets and systematic searching to create a typology of free schools in England. The full report by Jen Garry, Chloe Rush, Jude Hillary, Carl Cullinane and Rebecca Montacute is free to download via

Karen Wespieser
NFER Head of Impact