17 October 2018

The results are in: Free schools are working

By Mark Lehain

Yesterday’s GSCE results make fine reading for free school advocates. For the second year running, free schools have come out on top of the tables, and this time they’ve absolutely smashed it.

Looking at the Progress 8 scores – a key assessment measure that captures the progress pupils make from the end of primary school to their GCSEs – free schools were the top performing type of state school, with an average score of 0.24. In layman’s terms this means that their students typically achieved roughly a quarter of a grade higher than expected in each subject. This is a real sign of success, building on last year’s already-impressive score of 0.15.

On top of this, free schools made up four of the top ten highest performers. This is a fantastic achievement, considering that they make up only 2 per cent of all state secondary schools.

So while free schools are only a small part of the wider education landscape, they’re having a disproportionate impact on performance and innovation in the system. And GCSE results are not the only ones that demonstrate this.

Yesterday also saw analysis of this summer’s A-Level results: 23.6 per cent of students in free schools gained AAB or higher, compared to a national average of 19.2 per cent. And all of this follows on from the recent Key Stage One and Phonics scores, where free schools came out on top for the fourth year in a row. This is reflected by Ofsted too, with nearly one in three free schools judged to be “outstanding” versus the national rate of 21 per cent.

Some sceptics have claimed that free schools don’t offer value for money, but these stunning outcomes have been achieved at schools that were, on average, 29 per cent cheaper to build than previous school building programmes. Once opened, free schools receive the same per-pupil funding as any other school, and they’re clearly using it well.

It’s right to dig a little bit deeper than the raw results. Take Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford. Not only did it outperform pretty much every other school in the country again this year, it actually improved on last year. Even more impressive, it again saw its disadvantaged students make more progress than others. This is amazing enough in itself, but even more so when you consider it is doing it in an “opportunity area” – a part of the country that is considered by the Department for Education in need of specific additional intervention to raise standards. DTA and the wider Dixons group of school is absolutely doing that.

And then there’s Eden Girls’ School Coventry, the sixth best performer in the country. This is part of the ridiculously high performing trust, Star Academies, which has another free school and an academy in the top ten. Running three of the best schools in the country is an astonishing achievement, and yet just a few years ago two of them didn’t even exist.

I’m well aware that I can be accused of cherry picking a few high-performing schools, but look at results across the cohort and you find so many great success stories. It’s becoming harder and harder to build any sort of serious case against free schools.

Pull everything together and you start to get a compelling case for continuing, and even expanding, the programme: they’re cheaper to open, in areas of need, popular with parents, and now outperforming other types of school. A real achievement – and it also makes me especially interested to understand what would replace free schools if the policy was to be scrapped.

Labour have plans for the impressive sounding “National Education Service”. They’re light on details about how it will actually work, but they have been clear that they’ll scrap new free schools and replace them with “co-operative trust schools”.

I’m really keen to learn more about this, as I’m sure other teachers and parents across the land will be. The Opposition need to explain how their proposal will be better than the one we already have – not least because the current new school policy is producing the most successful type of state school in the country.

Any new policy introduced will have teething difficulties, regardless of how well planned it is, and will cause more upheaval in the system. We went through this with free schools, and we know only too well that some of the schools didn’t work out. Mistakes were made, but we learned from them and the end result is that there’s now an established, proven, process to open up great new schools in the areas that desperately need them. Why reinvent the wheel?

Yesterday’s results are further entries in an ever-growing body of evidence to show free schools are playing a key role in improving children’s chances across the country. They’ve unleashed teachers and others to drive up standards in their communities, and appear to be doing this most successfully in the areas that most need it. I’m relieved and delighted to see the policy bear fruit — that’s got to be something worth protecting and promoting.

Mark Lehain is Interim Director of the New Schools Network. He founded one of the first free schools in the country in 2012.