NAHT asks for a better alternative to free schools in tackling rising pupil numbers

NAHT blames the failure of free schools on confusion and inefficiency

As reported yesterday, the National Foundation for Educational Research has published a report entitled Free For All? Analysing free schools in England, 2018, and the results are damning.

The report states that free schools have failed in their original intention of creating and presenting innovative approaches to the curriculum and that part of the issue lies in the fact that many free secondary schools involved multi-academy trusts in their establishment.

NAHT, the school leaders’ union, believes that confusion caused by introducing MATs and lack of accountability are major contributors as to why the concept is failing.

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary, said: “It would be wrong to claim that free schools are responsible for any additional diversity in the system.

“The original purpose of the free school project was to offer the opportunity for different community groups to set up schools. In the beginning we saw this happening, but many of these schools have been absorbed into large trusts and new free schools are now overwhelmingly set up by MATs.”

Brook says that the idea was doomed from the beginning as, while free schools are not bound by the national curriculum, they do have to be held to account in the same way as any other school. Therefore, they were always unlikely to be able to offer much innovation. This has, of course, been exacerbated by funding cuts to facilities and activities, which affect free schools as much as any other.

The real take-away from the report, Brook says, is the issues involved in running a modern school.

“Opening a new school is a difficult business, requiring lots of capacity from the proposer groups. The fact that free schools now tend to be set up my MATs shows that tried and tested methods and a strong support network are a necessity, which begs the question why local authorities, who are able to offer this, are barred from opening schools themselves.”

The pupil population is rising and government figures show that an additional 654,000 places will be needed in England by 2026. NAHT believes that the free school programme is an “incredibly inefficient” way of attempting to tackle this need.

“Whilst many individual free schools have undoubtedly met a need for places in their area, regrettably, the free school programme as a whole just hasn’t had a big enough impact for those students,” says Brook. Research by the Sutton Trust outlined the fact that, while free schools are often located in disadvantaged areas, they generally have lower proportions of disadvantaged pupils within them than other schools.

“Free schools, when open, operate as their own admissions authority, so there will be many different admissions criteria for parents to navigate. This is needlessly confusing and does not make for a joined-up system that truly has the children’s best interest at heart.”

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