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New project to analyse the impact of free schools on local pupils’ outcomes

4 February 2020

A new research project examining the effects of free schools in England on student outcomes in neighbouring schools launches today (4 February).

Teacher checking pupil's work in class

The UCL Institute of Education (IOE) project is funded by the Nuffield Foundation and will run for two years. 

Free schools are new schools funded by the government, but are not governed by the local authority. The government intends for free schools to compete with and drive pressures for improvement in neighbouring schools. In 2015, the then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan stated that free schools “force existing schools to up their game”. However, there is concern that the impact of free schools could be negative, particularly for disadvantaged children, depending on how this competition happens.

The project will explore whether free schools influence local patterns of choice and competition and what the outcomes are for students in neighbouring schools. It will also identify whether free schools have a positive, neutral or negative impact on socio-economically disadvantaged children’s outcomes.

The project is led by Dr Rob Higham and includes Dr Jake Anders, Professor Francis Green, Dr Golo Henseke and Dr Ruth McGinity. The team will analyse data from the National Pupil Database, develop a new survey of schools that neighbour free schools and conduct interviews in eight case study locations.

Dr Higham said: “This project will develop a major analysis of free schools and their effects on student outcomes in neighbouring schools. The government argues free schools will be excellent schools, offering parents better choices, and that this will create new pressures for improvement in neighbouring schools. Substantial resources have been committed to these goals, but there is not yet rigorous evidence on the outcomes for students.

“This matters. Free schools are intended to compete with thousands of schools and benefit hundreds-of-thousands of children attending neighbouring schools. There is significant concern, however, that the impact of free schools could be negative, and disproportionately negative for disadvantaged children, for example by making a broad curriculum unviable in neighbouring schools or by increasing socio-economic segregation.

“This project will, therefore, develop a comprehensive analysis of the impacts of free schools on student outcomes in neighbouring schools. Importantly, it will analyse the mechanisms through which potential free school effects are manifested, by examining whether free schools compare well in terms of quality, whether parental preferences for local schools change with a free school opening, and whether existing schools respond by changing practices.”

Ruth Maisey, Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation said: “Whilst the government has said the creation of new free schools is likely to benefit students from disadvantaged areas of the country, others have been more sceptical. As such, we welcome this new project which will build an evidence-base to help assess whether free schools improve outcomes for students and how free schools impact neighbouring schools.”

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