The Free Schools Programme, launched in 2010, has changed the education landscape and improved outcomes for thousands of children in England.
Today, there are over 600 open free schools with more than 200 set to open in the near future. They have increased school places, created parental choice and served economically disadvantaged communities in England for over a decade.
Free schools have been well lauded for their role in bringing innovation to the sector, and there are some excellent examples of free schools established by groups of teachers, charities and sporting organisations that continue to thrive today. In more recent years, free schools have served as a way for small yet strong trusts to grow sustainably without the logistical and administrative challenges of taking on legacy schools, and for larger trusts to embed evidence-based best practice in areas where previous education improvement initiatives have failed.
Free schools also present fantastic development opportunities for educators, with principal designates and headteachers given the challenging, yet thrilling, tasks of designing a new school from scratch, utilising their personal experiences and creating a vision based on the communities that they serve.
One of the most far-reaching impacts of the programme has been the spread of pioneering approaches to pedagogy, teaching and learning and curriculum. We have seen trailblazers emerge in the sector, utilising new research, exploring new technologies and adapting to the ever-changing environment that we live in.
Cobham Free School was one of the first schools in the world to be using the latest telepresence technology during the COVID-19 pandemic. Using the GoBe Robot from NESA Robotics, self-isolating teachers could interact with their students in a more human way. Similarly, School 21 has developed a unique pedagogical approach to teaching in the 21st century, with oracy, exhibition and real-world learning at the heart of the school’s practice. Pioneer House High School, a special school in Manchester, has embedded a task-oriented culture to ensure that pupils understand the world of work that they will enter as young people and as adults.
We have also seen outstanding academic results from free schools, with the likes of Michaela Community School in Wembley, achieving among the best grades in the country. In 2019, nearly 18% of all grades achieved at the school were 9s, compared to 4.5% nationally. Many free schools have also altered our understanding of the teacher-student relationship, with The Boxing Academy in Hackney being an excellent example. Using the beneficial effects of sports to empower students, students at the alternative provision have access to a dedicated boxer who acts as a coach, teaching support and mentor.
Free schools have also enabled cross-sector collaborative approaches to levelling up, such as the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham, whose business sponsor is Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, and Exeter Maths School, sponsored by the University of Exeter and Exeter College. Both schools have been rated Outstanding by Ofsted.
Though the legacies and impact of existing free schools are vast, there is still more to be done to end educational deprivation across England. The Department for Education will be launching a mainstream wave of new schools, including new specialist 16-19 schools in Education Investment Areas, to contribute to the levelling up promise.
It will also be investing £2.6 billion to deliver new places and improve existing provision for pupils with SEND and pupils requiring alternative provision. This includes delivering more special and alternative provision free schools, as well as the 60 that are already in the pipeline. This will provide a much-needed lifeline to local authorities who are experiencing tougher pressures than ever around supporting high needs pupils.
PAG has been supporting free schools through the application process and beyond since 2015. We are excited to continue to work with excellent applicant groups to create the next generation of free schools. For more information on our new Create: Schools programme, please read our blog on this topic here.