Are free schools a good idea?

Catherine Kirkham-Sandy considers this flagship Coalition education policy

One of the main aims of the Coalition government’s policy of opening Free Schools was to liberalise the state education sector and to provide more choice to parents dissatisfied with the schools within their area. The sheer variety of educational institutions that this policy has created nationally in only 5 years can be demonstrated by the fact that 408 have already been opened or authorised, with 115 of the 323 initial applicants being faith schools. It provides a good, ‘real’ choice for parents considering schools for their children, since the government cites figures showing that 70% of Free Schools have been rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, each of them with a particular ethos or take on the curriculum.

However, critics of the formation of Free Schools argue that, instead of providing greater nation-wide choice in the provision of education and liberalising the current system, Free Schools will best serve the ‘sharp-elbowed’ white middle class, attracting the best-performing pupils and favouring the more prosperous members of society at the expense of everyone else. Their views are not without justification, since of the 408 Free Schools currently open or approved, 190 (around half) of them are in London and the Southeast, the wealthiest parts of the country in which the need for more educational provision is arguably much less than in other areas of the country, and so this policy has disproportionately aided these affluent regions, conferring educational choice only to the few. Yet, the proliferation of these schools in London and the Southeast may only prove that the demand is simply greater there and that there may be a lack of provision for children who are marginalised in an otherwise wealthy society. According to a 2015 study completed by Policy Exchange, the formation of Free Schools does genuinely reflect demand, since there are 2.7 applicants for every place. This suggests that Free Schools have succeeded in offering a more open, varied and rich educational alternative; one which parents have hitherto been yearning for.

Another one of the main purposes of Free Schools is to offer children from disadvantaged backgrounds the ability to access the good education which they (or their families) desire. Thus, the policy champions a form of educational equality designed to promote social justice and mobility. Free Schools have largely succeeded in doing this, as a study by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) discovered in 2013 that the average number of Free School pupils eligible for free school meals was very close to or slightly below national figures (although it must be noted that, since many Free Schools are set up in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in which the average number of children eligible for FSM remains significantly above the national percentage, it is possible to claim that some social selectivity is occurring at these schools). In terms of providing choice and quality in education for the ethnic minorities of Britain, Free Schools also succeed solidly in this aim, since (according to the same ESRC study) they ‘have emerged most strongly in neighbourhoods with high proportions of non-white children, compared with the national average’ and 17% of Free School secondary schools are non-Christian, allowing for other religions to provide for their communities when they would not have as able to do so in the comprehensive state system. Whether Free Schools succeed in their long-term goal of conferring a degree of social mobility to Britain remains to be seen, as we shall have to wait for the current generation of pupils to enter the workforce in order to ascertain this aspect of success.

The third principal aim of the Free School policy was to raise standards in local and national education via providing competition to local-authority controlled schools. Although Ofsted made a statement in 2014 that it is simply “too early to judge the overall performance of free schools” (with the Commons Education Committee reaching the same conclusion this January), there are early indications of success as the aformentioned Policy Exchange study suggested that Free Schools prop up local examination standards. However, there are more alarming examples of the failure of these Free Schools in providing a good quality education (or an education that does not teach radical, non-mainstream religion which is deemed harmful to society). This issue steams from the freedom from local authorities which is granted to all Free Schools. The Discovery Free School in West Sussex had to close in 2014 due to their poor standards, with pupils in danger of not being ‘able to read or write’ according to Ofsted. The Trojan-horse Scandal was caused by the creation of Islamic Free Schools in the north of England (Birmingham in particular) which taught their pupils extremist Muslim teachings, resulting in the closure of the Al-Madinah school in Derby among others. Just 28 per cent of the 47 pupils at Saxmundham Free School, in Suffolk, achieved five or more A* to C grades in 2015, including the subjects English and Maths. Therefore, although it is too early to see whether Free Schools as a whole have succeeded in raising standards, the weaker Free Schools which have totally failed to provide a good education have created significant cause for concern.

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