Abstract: Following the election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, the flagship Free Schools policy has seen a total of 79 new schools open in England. A further 102 are scheduled to open in September 2013 and the government anticipates continued expansion of the programme in future years. Free Schools are an extension of the Academies programme; they are state-funded and free of Local Authority control. In addition, they are usually new schools which have been opened by faith groups, charities, academy chains, parents or teachers with autonomy over their admissions administration and procedures.
This research aims to explore a number of key issues linked to this new type of school. In these early stages the project will firstly focus on who is attending Free Schools. What characteristics do Free School intakes have and has their introduction had an impact on the composition of other local schools?
Using data from the National Pupil Database and Schools Census, the project will examine the composition of the Free Schools, comparing them to others in their area and exploring whether their intakes are representative of where they are located. Geographical issues are further analysed using postcode data to understand where children are travelling from and the distances that they are commuting to attend a Free School. Concerns have been raised about the potential for Free Schools to be elitist institutions, set up and governed by middle-class parents, situated in more affluent areas and attended by more able children. This research hopes to provide evidence to address some of these issues and considers the socioeconomic, ethnic and religious profiles of these schools. Analysis of this data will allow investigation of whether Free Schools are taking their ‘fair share’ of certain groups of children. Furthermore, the project will analyse pupil clustering, focusing on whether the introduction of a new school to an area has had any effect on levels of segregation amongst the local school population.
As Free Schools are responsible for their own admissions policies and procedures, the second part of this project will explore what these are and the potential impact that they might be having on the intakes of the schools. Free Schools do have to adhere to the Admissions Code, and are supposed to be academically non-selective. Again, however, questions have been raised about the use of faith criteria, catchment areas, designated feeder primary schools and aptitude tests for certain subject specialisms. An in-depth analysis of all Free School admissions policies, documents and practices will allow for further understanding of whether such schools are using fair and inclusive measures for families who could potentially choose the school for their children.
The completed project will give a much clearer picture of who Free Schools are educating and the methods that they are using to admit students. This will provide the basis for further investigation into the role of Free Schools in improving academic standards and outcomes.