Free schools proved the power of innovation. We need more of it

The greatest impact of the free schools programme was embodying a spirit of innovation that our system needs more of

The greatest impact of the free schools programme was embodying a spirit of innovation that our system needs more of

2 Dec 2023, 5:00

Last week, the New Schools Network published a report looking at the impact of the free school programme.  A flash of nostalgia took us back ten years to the policy debates of the time and our own roles in helping to set up a new school. 

One of the core tensions of the policy has always been how to get the right balance between meeting the ‘basic need’ for school places, and creating space for innovation. 

The argument for having enough funded places for children to be able to go to a school of their choosing is straightforward. Of course as a system we must be able to ensure every child can attend school. If not, we are failing their basic rights.

The argument for innovation seems equally clear. Without space for people to innovate, how else can we move forward as a sector?

Given the current, tight financial circumstances, the question of where best to spend money and resources is even more important. Declining pupil numbers and falling rolls are affecting more and more primary schools. Many children are still held back by disadvantage, and how we support children with SEND or other challenges is crucial. This means we need to make good choices in the years ahead about how to offer high-quality provision that is financially sustainable. 

No one would claim that the free schools programme was perfect; it was a complex and different type of intervention with the explicit aim of changing how things could be done. But it created opportunities to do things differently, in schools, communities and also in government. 

Some really successful schools and innovations have come from the programme, as well as some that didn’t work as well as people hoped. We can and should learn from both.

One of the policy’s strengths was the sense of explicit encouragement and license to try new things: arrangements for the school day, deployment of teachers, new curriculum models and new partnership models. In an education culture which can often feel high-stakes and resource-constrained, these signals about the importance and value of innovation are crucial. 

There’s something energising about feeling you can

Back in the day, the DfE had an innovation unit. It established a new ‘power to innovate’, which allowed schools to apply for a temporary exemption from legal constraints which stopped them doing something they wanted to try. Interestingly, the vast majority of applications were for things schools actually had the power to do anyway. They didn’t need the DfE to grant them the power to innovate: they had it already. 

So perceptions of what schools can and can’t do differently within the existing rules and frameworks aren’t always clear.  And for us that speaks to the need for explicit space, time, encouragement and funding to do something new. 

There’s also something energising about feeling you can innovate. We both have vivid memories of the excitement from teachers, students and parents about the new things we were trying in our school, and that sense of possibility of finding new solutions to long-standing challenges. 

Obviously we can’t gamble recklessly with children’s education, particularly when so much education time has been disrupted in recent years, but thoughtful, evidence-based innovation is key to system-wide improvement. 

Innovation isn’t necessarily about doing something technologically whizzy, and never about introducing gimmicky projects. Often the most successful school improvement strategies are iterations of simple policies, systems or routines, implemented consistently and well: a new curriculum of reflection in internal exclusion, compulsory enrichment time or extra-curricular activities, or quizzing in a consistent manner. There are many areas we could innovate to improve pupils’ experiences. 

Doing the same things we’ve aways done isn’t a realistic way to achieve better outcomes. Neither is tokenism. But meaningful innovation is a powerful driver of improvement and motivation. 

That’s why we remain excited about innovation’s improvement – from literacy to workforce strategies – and why we support the establishment of the New Schools Network’s new fund to support innovation and help the most disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, politicians and leaders can do more to create genuine opportunities to support and foster high quality innovation – not least by ensuring schools know (and really feel) they can. 

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