What’s next for free schools?

It is strange now to remember that when the free school programme was introduced in 2010, some questioned whether anyone would be interested in starting a new school. Five years on, parents, teachers, charities and others have seized the opportunity. Over 400 free schools are now open or approved to open – creating 230,000 new places.
The free school programme has delivered new schools faster than any other school building programme and, according to the National Audit Office, at significantly less cost to the taxpayer than previous initiatives. Even more importantly, these schools are flourishing. Free schools inspected by Ofsted are more likely to be judged Outstanding than other state schools inspected under the new tougher framework. Many are beginning to produce exceptional results, with ARK Conway in West London, a free school that opened in 2011, named by the Department for Education (DfE) as the highest performing primary school in the country.  
This excellence is a big factor behind free schools’ popularity with parents. Many become quickly oversubscribed despite not having the usual track record and, in a poll conducted for New Schools Network by Populus, 73 per cent of parents said they would consider sending their child to a new school. The new government has now pledged to open 500 more free schools so it is an incredibly exciting time for all the groups that can now plan to make their applications.

A challenging process
These groups are incredibly varied in their experience and expertise – they include parents, teachers, community groups, charities and existing schools across England. In fact, teachers have been particularly active in driving their creation, with 68 per cent of free schools being set up by groups led by teachers, existing successful schools, academy chains, or existing education providers.
What they all have in common is an incredible level of commitment. The application process to set up a new school is incredibly rigorous – as it should be. Groups have to demonstrate a high level of educational expertise and have to prove they are both wanted and needed by local parents, making parents the driving force behind every school.
Only after handing in their 100+ page document and going through a lengthy interview process with the DfE will a group find out if their bid has been successful. Then follows a demanding pre-opening stage, in which the team must create a school and demonstrate their readiness to open. This means securing premises, teaching staff, and so on, while holding a public consultation with the local community.

The chance to innovate
The fact that so many applications have been made despite these challenges is a testament not only to the commitment of free school founders, but also to their enthusiasm to bring new ideas and opportunities to the children they work with. The free school programme has unleashed the entrepreneurialism of school leaders as never before, enabling some of the country’s most effective schools to expand their impact.
Teachers in particular have embraced the chance to open innovative new schools. Thanks to the free school policy, we have seen teachers introduce the first state funded bilingual schools; schools which deliver project based learning across the entire curriculum; and schools which teach maths in a similar way to schools in Singapore.
It is especially gratifying to see these efforts focused on the most disadvantaged. Currently, free schools are ten times more likely to be located in the most deprived local authorities in England than in the least deprived.
The policy has also allowed those with an interest in education to get more directly involved in the running of schools than ever before. Many new schools have been set up in close collaboration with industry, operating curricula that delivers the skills necessary for future careers and engaging experts in the field. They range from East London Arts and Music in Tower Hamlets which was set up by award-winning urban music artists with the support of major music labels to widen access to the creative industries to Discovery School in Newcastle, a 14-19 school that focusses on the industries that are helping to regenerate the North East.
Other schools have been set up by charities, universities and community organisations, as a means of furthering their mission in society. The Big Life Group, linked to the Big Issue magazine, has set up a primary school, which will deliver high quality education and childcare to families in one of the poorest parts of Manchester while Everton, Bolton Wanderers and Bradford City are examples of a number of football clubs that have embedded their role in the community by leading the creation of new schools.
The schools that have been created as free schools are extremely diverse, but they are all underpinned by a belief that the best way to raise attainment for all children is by delivering high quality education within the state sector.

Wider impact
Free schools are also making a difference in education more widely. A survey of open free schools by the DfE found that over 70 per cent of heads believe they are having an impact locally – a third of these believe that this is being driven by competition, and a further third believe it is collaboration that is making a difference. Recent research by the think tank Policy Exchange backs-up this perception. Their analysis showed that opening a new free school in an area helps to drive up standards in both primary and secondary underperforming schools nearby, particularly in higher poverty schools and schools that are under capacity.
But collaboration was seen as equally important by free school heads. An incredible 84 per cent of open free schools have already formalised partnerships with their neighbouring schools or plan to do so. What’s more, three quarters of open free schools have provided support to their peers.

What’s next?
More new schools are urgently needed so it is great news that there will be no slowdown in momentum. We will be working hard in the coming months to find the next generation of founders who are willing to come forward and create another 500 new schools. Not only will this help fill the shortfall in places across England, but these schools will also raise standards and provide a new choice for parents in areas where deprivation and low standards have meant no real choice except for the wealthy.
We offer a range of support to groups interested in setting up a free school and I hope that we will be hearing from more and more people ready to set up new schools where they are wanted and needed the most.

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