Nothing Comes for Free: The Past and Future of the UKs Free Schools

In the early spring of 2014, outside the Reach Academy, Feltham, smiling pupils posed for photos as the school became the first of its kind to be awarded Ofsted’s highest overall grade for the quality of a school: Outstanding. Within two years of opening, the school had done what so many institutions and academies had failed to do for so long: provide a top class education. The future of Free Schools looked bright.

Fast forward less than a month, however, and the reality of the situation struck home. Discovery New School in Crawley, West Sussex, a small Free School established in 2011 became the first Free School to shut down after a year of failing support, extremely poor Ofsted reports, and desperate educational standards. The inspection team that sealed the school’s fate remarked that there was a genuine risk of children leaving the school unable to read or write. Having poured over £3million into the school the government cut its losses amid political scuffles and rushed apologies.

If you’re scratching your head at this point wondering what a Free School is, don’t be alarmed, you’re not alone. With all the changes going on in the UK education system, it can be difficult to keep up. Free Schools started appearing in the autumn of 2010, spearheaded by Michael Gove, that much-loved administrator. A Free School is essentially an Academy that has been set up by a group of parents, teachers, charities, trusts, religious or voluntary groups. Like an Academy, they are funded directly by the government and are subject to the same codes of conduct and guidelines as other state schools. They are free from Local Authority control and have the power to deliver their own curriculum, as long as it is “broad and balanced”.

After the disaster in Crawley, it didn’t take long before Free Schools hit the headlines again, this time on the 14th August or A Level results day. Surrounded by the developing infrastructure of East London, Stratford’s London Academy of Excellence (LAE), a Free School established in 2012, posted some of the best A-Level results in the country. 40% of XI formers achieved AAB and well over a third of its pupils went on to Russell Group universities. Once again, Free Schools were in the ascendency.

However, it only took four days before question marks started to appear over the Newham school’s success story. Rather than requiring 5 GCSEs at A-C standard as an entry criteria, the norm for most establishments, the LAE asks for students to have 5 A* or A grades at GCSE level. With this is mind, is it any wonder that the LAE produced some of the top A-Level results nationally? Furthermore, Ofsted commented that “Not enough students achieve the high grades at AS-level of which they are capable. Not enough students make the progress that their GCSE grades indicate they should when compared to similar students nationally”.

So what’s the conclusion here? Should we continue to support Free Schools, or, as politician Chris Oxlade put it, are they simply “a political experiment that's gone horribly wrong”. The truth resides in the future. The number of free schools in the UK is set to almost double in the 2014/5 academic year, and the coming months could provide the clearest indication of their future within the UKs pedagogical tradition.

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