Thirteen years of free schools: Five lessons for policymakers

Policymakers on all sides must learn the lessons of the free schools programme and commit to its innovative approach

Policymakers on all sides must learn the lessons of the free schools programme and commit to its innovative approach

1 Dec 2023, 5:00

Fourteen years ago, the New Schools Network was founded, conceived as a charity dedicated to a new idea: free schools. That local people and communities should be empowered to establish their own schools and educate their own children, free from local authority control.

Our dream was to bring the opportunities afforded by the independence available to private schools far and wide, to all communities — but especially the most disadvantaged.

Thirteen years after the first free school opened, success is plain to see. 701 free schools are now open, with 150 more due in the near future. They provide over 373,000 school places, and 25 per cent of them are rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted — compared to just 16 per cent of schools as a whole.

On almost every conceivable metric, at every measurable stage in the schooling cycle, the education provided by free schools has better results than elsewhere in the state system. Just take key stage 1, where 87 per cent of children attending free schools reach the required standard for phonics, compared to 82 per cent elsewhere.

So, what lessons can policymakers take from this success?

Trust school leaders to lead

The first lesson is simple: we must trust school leaders working with strong teams to lead. Proven results show that schools free of central or local government control deliver for children, parents and communities. Teachers are able to offer a distinct ethos that parents can choose to buy into, and provide a unique, high-quality education. We must give greater autonomy to those running public services and put our faith in them to deliver.

At the New Schools Network, we helped over two-thirds of free schools to open. We know the value of capable leadership. But capable leadership is not a one-size-fits-all exercise.

Urgent innovation

Speedy innovation is at the core of our success. One of the great opportunities for free schools is the opportunity to innovate, which is why the New Schools Network is launching our Innovation Fund.

We will provide grants of between £5,000 and £50,000 to free schools with innovative ideas in education, targeted at those that help the most disadvantaged. If we want to succeed, we must be brave enough to back reformers working on the ground rather than simply listen to vested interests. And we must do so with a sense of urgency that is at times sorely missing in the state sector.

Don’t be afraid to fail

Another key lesson from the past 13 years is that leaders need to be free to fail. One of the worst qualities of our overbearing state is an aversion to risk. This only stifles success. Accepting teething problems and transition issues opens the door to the greatest opportunities and allows us to escape the gentle stagnation of our traditional policy landscape.

Community-led approaches work best

We also now know that we have to provide our communities with the social capital and civic confidence to take leaps forward.

It was only with the support of independent organisations like the New Schools Network that so many free schools were able to be founded. Community-led approaches need community-based organisations to drive them forward. They provide like-minded leaders with forums to network and support one another — essential when you are breaking the mould.

Commitment for the long-term

It is clear above all else that policymakers urgently need to commit for the long-term, and keep up the pace. Hundreds of thousands of pupils have benefitted from free schools, and hundreds of thousands more deserve the opportunity to share in those benefits.

This agenda is at its lowest ebb since 2010, but those of us who have been involved in this movement have a lot to be proud of and, crucially, an awful lot to fight for. School reform has disappeared down the list of government priorities; without bold, urgent action we may well go backwards. The importance of school reform cannot be forgotten; without it we risk letting down communities across the country, including the most disadvantaged.

Government and opposition alike must make clear that free schools are here to stay, and encourage more providers up and down the country to open them. It’s what all of our pupils deserve.

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