As the flagship education policy under the current coalition government, the Free Schools initiative has attracted substantial political, academic and media interest. It is no surprise, therefore, that with a general election looming, people are interested in knowing what direction the policy might take next.
Should a Conservative-led government maintain power in 2015 it seems likely that the Free Schools policy will continue in its current form with more new schools continuing to open across the country. Shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, has stated, however, that a Labour government would “end the Free Schools programme” but will allow those open, or approved for opening, to continue. Instead, Hunt has discussed the introduction of ‘parent-led academies’ (Free Schools by any other name?) which will allow parents, teachers or community groups to open new schools. Whatever they might be called then, it seems that policies allowing for the creation of new, autonomous state schools are here to stay. But what can be learnt from the Free Schools programme so far? And what possibilities are there to develop or improve it in relation to social justice and equity?
One of the original objectives of Free Schools was linked to the provision of high quality education for those from deprived backgrounds. Early analyses demonstrated that the first schools were not serving poorer families (Gooch, 2011; Burn-Murdoch, 2012) and that, on average, proposers were not specifically motivated by serving disadvantaged communities (Higham, 2013). More recent research has also concluded that Free Schools “are opening in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but are taking fewer poor children than the other local schools” (Green et al., 2014). This does not automatically mean that the schools are covertly ‘selecting out’ poorer children via their admissions and allocation procedures; it could also be the case that poorer families are just not choosing the schools in the first place. Either way, if the aim is for balanced intakes across all schools then it is important that new schools are actively seeking to attract and admit students from different backgrounds.
My research on admissions policies highlights the substantial diversity of criteria that Free Schools are using to prioritise the allocation of places. It also demonstrates the potential for these new schools to increase levels of stratification between schools in the local area. Some schools are clearly attempting to use their admissions policy to admit socially balanced intakes, offering priority to those eligible for the Pupil Premium or by participating in Local Authority-wide banding systems. The majority of schools, however, are not operating in this way.
Some Free Schools are using catchment areas or specifying postcode districts, prioritizing places based on faith or musical aptitude and offering priority admissions to children of school founders and staff. Such practices have the potential to continue or increase stratification of pupils based on their socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion or ability. But it is important to remember that this is not just a Free Schools issue. The schools system in England was already considerably segregated prior to the introduction of academies and Free Schools. Nevertheless, these schools have done nothing to improve the situation and therefore should be aiming to counter this through their admissions policies and procedures.
Closely linked to this focus on new types of school in the system is the continued rhetoric surrounding Free Schools and diversity. The coalition have encouraged schools that offer ‘something different’ despite evidence which suggests that increased diversity within a local schools system leads to increased social stratification. My research on the student compositions of Free Schools highlights how schools with ‘alternative’ or specialist curricula (such as Montessori, Steiner or bilingual schools) and religious schools tend to underrepresent disadvantaged children in their intakes (Morris, in press). Diversity is often marketed to parents as a way of bringing about additional choice. But in reality this is not the case. Opening new schools which emphasise a particular curriculum area or faith only reduce choice for those families who are not interested in such specialisms. Put simply, diversity can be another way of separating rather than integrating different groups of pupils.
With Free Schools still being subject to the same accountability and effectiveness measures as other schools there is also a limit to how innovative and diverse they can really be. As with all other state-funded schools, the success of Free Schools will primarily be measured via performance tables and Ofsted inspections. As a result it seems quite possible that in the quest for diversity and innovation, schools wishing to be judged as effective will instead choose a more uniform approach to curricula, qualifications and pedagogy as has occurred with academies. There perhaps seems little point, therefore, in a future government continuing to pursue the diversity agenda when the negative social outcomes of such policies are becoming increasingly clear.
It is still too early to make any meaningful comment on the academic outcomes of Free Schools. Some have clearly been successful in terms of other measures (such as Ofsted, being oversubscribed or parent opinion). But unsurprisingly others have not. In terms of promoting social justice within the system, there is much that can be learnt from the Free Schools policy. However, we must be careful not to assume that it is only Free Schools that could do more in terms of creating a fairer admissions system and reducing unbalanced intakes. These are issues that could (and should) be tackled on a national level and in relation to all schools.
Academies Commission (2013) Unleashing greatness: Getting the best from an academised system. http://www.thersa.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/1008038/Unleashing-greatness.pdf
Burn-Murdoch, J. (2012) Over three quarters of free schools take fewer deprived pupils than their state-funded equivalents. Get the data. http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/apr/23/free-schools-deprivation
Gooch, R. (2011) Free Schools and disadvantaged children: the data. http://schoolduggery.wordpress.com/2011/11/14/free-schools-and-disadvantaged-children-the-data/
Green, F., Allen, R. and Jenkins, A. (2014) Research Briefing Summary: The Social Composition of Free Schools after Three Years http://www.llakes.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Free-Schools-briefing-document.pdf
Higham, R. (2013) Free schools in the Big Society: the motivations, aims and demography of free school proposers. Journal of Education Policy, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02680939.2013.792017
Morris, R. (in press) Free Schools and disadvantaged intakes, British Educational Research Journal