Free Schools Opening In Poor Neighbourhoods But Not Reaching The Poorest Children

Free schools are failing to serve the neediest children in their areas, according to a new study from the Institute of Education (IOE), London.

It shows that schools in this flagship Government programme are opening in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but are taking fewer poor children (those receiving free meals) than the other local schools.

“The net effect is that the free secondary school pupils themselves are close to average for all English secondary schools, and the free primary school pupils very slightly better off,” says the study, published by the ESRC-funded Centre for Learning and Life Chances (LLAKES) and led by Francis Green, Professor of Labour Economics and Skills Development.

In addition, primary children who enter free schools are academically ahead of their peers. They have significantly higher levels of attainment than the average not only for their neighbourhoods, but for the country as a whole. “When it comes to evaluating the performance of primary free schools, it will be important to examine their value added, rather than their academic outcomes, which are likely to be better than average because of their intakes,” the researchers advise.

“It appears that, so far, the places in Reception at free primary schools are being filled by children who are somewhat less disadvantaged and more advanced in their development than the average. This outcome may be disappointing for the government, which had hopes that its free schools policy would be a vehicle for delivering social justice,” says Professor Green.

The report, published today, is the first academic study analysing the social composition of all the primary and secondary free schools over the first three years of the Government’s controversial programme. “By cumulating three years’ worth of intakes, we are now in a position to obtain robust findings. Using the National Pupil Database we examine available data for 88 primary and 63 secondary free schools that had opened by September 2013,” the paper explains.

Key findings are:

  • The government’s anticipation that free schools would emerge in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is, on average, vindicated: looking at the neighbourhoods of free schools, one can see that there is a slightly higher proportion of children entitled to free school meals (FSM) when compared to the rest of England: 22% compared with 17% at secondary level, and 18% compared with 16% at primary level.
  • However, critics’ concerns that the schools might become socially selective are also supported. Within the neighbourhood, fewer pupils actually attending the free schools were eligible for FSM – only 17.5% for secondary schools and 13.5% in primary schools. The net effect is that the free secondary school pupils themselves are close to average for all secondary schools, and the free primary school pupils very slightly better off.
  • In terms of prior achievement, there is a marked difference at primary level: the free schools children have a distinctly higher Foundation Stage Profile mean score (0.33) than elsewhere in the neighbourhood and the rest of England where it is close to zero. The difference is statistically significant at a high level.

A research briefing on The Social Composition of Free Schools after Three Years by Francis Green, Rebecca Allen and Andrew Jenkins is available here.

To speak to Professor Green contact him on  / 020 7911 5530.

Or contact Diane Hofkins,  / 07976 703455

Or contact the IOE Press Office:  / 020 7911 5556

Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES): This Economic and Social Research Council-funded research centre investigates the role of lifelong learning in promoting economic competitiveness and social cohesion, and in mediating the interactions between the two. Key areas of research include: i) the social and cultural foundations of learning, knowledge production and transfer, and innovation, within the context of a changing economy, and ii) the effects of knowledge and skill distribution on income equality, social cohesion and competitiveness. It has a programme of multi-disciplinary and mixed method research, which addresses these issues at the level of the individual life course, through studies of city-regions and sectors in the UK, and through comparative analysis across OECD countries. More at

Economic and Social Research Council: The ESRC funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.