Blow for Government as free schools 'failing in parent-led purpose'
A flagship Tory schools policy is failing in its original aim of offering extensive parental choice, a damning new report has said.
Just one in five free schools, which are designed to operate outside of local authority control, have been set up by parents since 2015.
The stark revelation comes despite former Education Secretary Michael Gove having sold the scheme on the opportunity for parents to set up state schools shaped by their own preferences.
The National Foundation for Educational Research and Sutton Trust analysis found free schools were more likely to be set up by multi-academy trusts (MATs).
Meanwhile, the report said just a third of the establishments offer an innovative approach to teaching and learning, as promised initially.
The study shows just 15% of primary free schools, 28% of secondary free schools, and 19% of 'all-through' free schools - which cater for four- to 16-year-olds - are parent-led.
The report found that while parents were involved in 40% of the 25 secondaries which opened between 2011 and 2013, just 20% are involved in the 37 founded since 2015.
On primary and all-through free schools, the numbers had fallen from 32% to just 4%.
The report added that 59% of the free schools in existence had been set up by academy chains.
NFER chief executive Carole Willis said: "The government's free schools programme has not been very successful at bringing innovation to the education system and encouraging more parents and teachers to set up new schools.
"If the Government is still committed to the programme's original purpose then it should review and clarify the mission of free schools."
However, the study did find that secondary pupils perform slightly better at free schools and although they have a slightly lower proportion of disadvantaged pupils, those pupils do better than their peers in other schools.
It also said free schools had "largely been set up in areas with a need for more school places".
A Department for Education spokesman said the schools were “driving up standards” in less privileged areas and said 84% of free schools inspected by Ofsted were rated good or outstanding.
“Almost 400 free schools have opened since 2010 – creating over 212,000 places – and nearly half of those schools are in the most deprived areas of the country,” they said.
“We are now inviting applications for more free schools and will prioritise those proposals that want to set up in areas with the lowest educational performance and greatest need for more good school places.”