Neither side is completely right or wrong in the free schools debate, explains Natalie Perera, but what is clear is that there is no quick fix to improving outcomes

Free schools have been politically divisive since their establishment in 2010.

To their supporters, they are a helpful disruption to the schools market, improving competition, choice and quality. To their detractors, they are a distraction and a further step away from local democracy and accountability. This debate, as with so much in education, has lacked evidence and impartial analysis.

Today, the Education Policy Institute fills that gap. Our report is the first of its kind – bringing together data on where free schools are located, whether they are popular with parents, and how they serve disadvantaged children. The report also provides a more scientific approach to any early findings on the impact of free schools on pupil attainment and progress.

No surprise then, that both sides of the debate have expressed a particular interest in our report. It is unusual in the research space for both the proponents and opponents of a policy to be equally nervous about the results; they usually have a hunch.

If free school supporters really want to be game-changing, they need to look far beyond the capital

Our report proves that neither side of the argument is completely right or wrong. Free schools are helping to meet the need for new places and are more likely to be located in disadvantaged areas of the country. But they are not being set up in parts of the country dogged by poor schools and they are less likely actually to admit a representative proportion of poor children in the areas they do serve.

One of the widely contested statements made by supporters is that they are popular with parents. Our report finds that this is certainly not the case (yet). In fact, pupils are more likely to travel beyond their nearest school if it is a free school, than they would if their nearest school were not a free school.

But this potentially reflects an intended feature of the programme. Free schools can be set up precisely because their founders want to offer something different to what is available at other local schools.

Take the Michaela free school in North London, for example. It’s been described as “Marmite” due its strict behaviour and traditional teaching policies. I’ve visited and neither love nor hate it, but it does offer something different to pupils, which will inevitably attract or deter parents depending on what they are looking for from a school. That being the case, these schools may never expect to be the default local school for many, while other parents may be willing for their children to travel to reach such a school.

We also have to remember that a large proportion of free schools are located in London, where choice is plentiful. If free school supporters really want to be game-changing, they need to look far beyond the capital.

It is too early to judge conclusively whether free schools are having a positive impact on outcomes. What our report does show, however, is that simply comparing free schools with other schools does not give you the full picture. Pupil background needs to be taken into account and this can only be done through rigorous statistical analysis.

While we can draw some conclusions about the free schools programme from our report, we show that change takes time. Parents are understandably wary about a new offer to their children, free schools are struggling to make an impact in poor-performing areas of the country, and we are yet to see any discernible improvement in outcomes. In other words, there is no quick fix.

Natalie Perera is head of research at the Education Policy Institute