Free schools 'failing to reach most disadvantaged areas'

The government’s flagship free schools programme is failing to reach some of England’s lowest performing areas and disproportionately drawing pupils from neighbourhoods that achieve higher results, a new report has found.

Free schools, the first of which were opened in 2011, are also being opened in regions where there is far less demand for school places, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) study found.

David Laws, executive chairman of the EPI, said the free schools programme “seems to have failed to effectively target the parts of England with the worst school performance, including in many white, working class, areas”.

“If additional money is to be allocated to this programme, it needs to have more impact on the truly left behind educational areas of England.”

There are more than 500 free schools across the country, with hundreds more due to be opened by the government over the next few years.

The EPI report found that free schools have increased school places at primary level, adding 11 places per 1,000 pupils in areas with the greatest demand for school places. However, secondary free schools have only added four places per 1,000 pupils in areas with high demand.

Meanwhile in low demand areas, secondary free schools have added an extra 15 places per 1,000 pupils and primary free schools have created an extra four places per 1,000 pupils.

Earlier this year, the latest 22 new free schools to be approved by the government were revealed. The Department for Education (DfE) said the new schools were focused on areas with low educational performance and “insufficient capacity to improve”, as well as those areas that have not yet had free schools and have a need for new school places.

But the EPI report found that secondary free schools are also failing to reach poor performing areas. They have added just five places per 1,000 created in the lowest performing areas, compared to the 18 places per 1,000 places created in the highest.

At primary level, five places per 1,000 pupils had been created in the lowest performing areas, while three per 1,000 pupil places were created in areas with higher-quality schools.

Although free schools were found to be taking pupils from economically disadvantaged areas, there has been a failure to reach communities with historically low educational attainment, such as deprived, white, working class groups, the report found.

There is also a mixed picture when it comes to the performance of free schools. The research found that pupil attainment at primary is poor, but progress in secondary is very good.

However, the EPI warned that high performing free schools are “disproportionately drawing their pupils from neighbourhood types that already achieve higher results on average”.

Jon Andrews, deputy head of research at the EPI, said: “If the government’s aim in education is to ‘level-up’ opportunity across the country, then it needs to improve outcomes in areas with entrenched underperformance. These areas have not been well served by the free schools programme.”

The EPI recommended that any expansion of free schools should be targeted towards areas where pupil outcomes are low – a call welcomed by the New Schools Network.

The think tank also urged the government to look beyond simple measures of economic disadvantage and consider ways to improve outcomes in areas with entrenched underperformance.

Lord Agnew, schools minister, said: “We’re aware that there are low performing areas across the country that still need good school places and that’s why we opened applications for more new free schools earlier this year, targeting areas with low educational standards.”

But Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The free schools policy cannot simply be tweaked or amended to overcome the problems identified here. Allowing chains to open new schools via an application to central government is fundamentally illogical, undemocratic and wasteful – and that is why the programme must be ended.”