In Short, Opinion

6 super-nerdy things you might have missed in the Policy Exchange free school report

Today’s Policy Exchange ‘research’ conveniently released a bunch of positive facts about free schools on the exact same day that David Cameron announced 49 new ones and committed to opening 500 more. Well, fancy that.

There have been endless back and forths about the correctness of the report. People seem to see what they want to see in the data but, in truth, the samples are simply too small to tell.

What’s a shame is that in all the arguments about who was right so far, hardly anyone has noticed the sensible ‘recommendations’ section of the Policy Exchange report which admits that if free schools are here to stay the process will need improving a touch.

Here’s 6 of the nerdiest (but most important) recommendations:

1. The report advocates for local authorities to be allowed to open schools

People are quick to call PX a ‘tory’ organisation but in their recommendations towards the back of the book they state that local authorities should be allowed to compete to open new schools. If they’re better than other providers, then they ought to win. Refreshing.

2. The report suggests an amended process for opening new schools – one for ‘basic need’ (a shortage of places) and ‘educational need’ (a shortage of quality places)

A problem of only opening in areas where there are too few places is that it fails to give schools to communities that most need a bit ‘oomph’. At least, that’s the theory. It will still rile some people who think new schools should never open in areas with surplus places – but it’s a better idea than just opening them wherever pushy middle class parents demand them.

3. Competition for new schools in areas of ‘basic need’ should be run by a local organisation, published widely, and ask for information in a standardised form.

The report suggests that regional school commissioners or directors of school standards should run the competition. That way, local authorities can enter and there’s no conflict of interest. BUT, they also say the adverts for the competitions should be widely advertised so lots of groups could enter and not just the local authority. This should increase the quality of applicants.

4. Competition for new schools in areas of ‘educational need’ should be centrally decided

If a school is going in an area where education is weak then it’s best if the application is handled by central government who can decide on a provider to run the school. It’s not entirely clear why this should be the case – something about conflicts of interest, and how the regional school commissioner might feel a bit bad that their patch is rubbish, it seems.

5. Expand the New Schools Network and have it focus on regions that need more and better groups to open schools

I’m a bit suspicious of this. Why is everyone else driven up by competition but still the government and PX cling to the notion that just one group should be supporting new school groups? Why not open up the process, be more transparent and allow new people into this market? I worry PX has some vested interests.

6. Give the cash spent on DfE ‘educational advisors’ for free schools to the school itself – and then it can decide its own school improvement partner

Hmm. This sounds good in theory, but then I remember those schools that were useless with their cash or up to no good and I think: should we be giving them more money and less government scrutiny? (No, is the answer).


There’s also an oddity in this piece. Transparency isn’t mentioned, which is odd as one of the authors, Jonathan Simons, has long advocated for more sharing of information about free schools.

It’s a shame being open hasn’t made it through as the report otherwise reflects many of the National Association of Public Charter Schools’ recommendations for school commissioning based on decades of examining what worked in the US.

So near, and yet so opaque. I hope another report will finish off what this one left out.


Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week


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  1. Thanks for this geek fest Laura. Just a couple of quick points in response

    1. The reason why the process for new providers should be decided centrally is precisely because under our new proposal, the boundaries for who can bid for new schools will be drawn quite widely – and, we think, the effects will be felt quite widely as well. In other words, it isn’t straightforward as the decision makers in the relevant DSS or RSC to say “oh, Joe Bloggs’s school wants to expand, so he must excuse himself from any decision making, and Jane Smith’s school will be affected so she should excuse herself as well but otherwise we can make this decision at regional level”. To always ensure that it’s a truly disinterested party making a decision, we think it must be done nationally / centrally. Also, you know, democracy (of which I’m a BIG fan in education…)

    2. I totally agree with you that it needn’t be NSN that does number 5 – and it absolutely could be one or indeed a multiple number of groups (to be honest we use NSN here largely as an illustration / shorthand because they’re the most suitable org to do this at the current time and explain what we see an organisation morphing into). The point we’re making here is that someone needs to do grassroots capacity building, and that needs to be funded either from government or from philanthropic / grant funding somewhere else (cos you can’t run a traded services model with charities and parents groups especially if you’re trying to generate interest in deprived areas).

    3. If a school didn’t decide to employ a Dept appointed EA, it wouldn’t have less scrutiny. It would still need to appoint someone else rigorous – whether through peer review, from a local Teaching School etc. If they didn’t, then that would a) be short sighted and b) more to the point, not be looked on kindly when it came to be Ofsted’ed in the 4th term in terms of good leadership and management

    4. Hands up on transparency – we haven’t changed our position on it but it did get lost in the final edits. We’re going to do a short follow up piece on some of the history of the process etc using a lot of our interview transcripts which also didn’t make the final cut so hopefully it will come out there.

  2. I don’t think the RSC should determine who should run schools. The headteacher’s panels which advise them are made up of Academy heads and sponsors so their view about maintained schools is likely to be skewed. I predict that local authorities would not have a level playing field with academy sponsors as the judge of who should run a particular school.

    It needs to be someone with no particular axe to grind on the category of school (as that’s the least important aspect of whether it will succeed based on current evidence!)