Education International
Education International

UK: At free schools, there’s no such thing as a free lunch

published 11 August 2014 updated 3 September 2014

A new study says that the Government’s free school programme implemented in disadvantaged areas is failing the poorest children it was created to serve in order to avoid paying for lunches.

According to the University of London’s Institute of Education (IOE), the heavily funded free schools established to help needier children have been accepting fewer students than other local schools, especially those who require lunches to be provided.

The IOE’s study, The Social Composition of Free Schools after Three Years, is criticising the flagship programme’s open selection criteria that it says has resulted in the admission of children less in need and more advanced in their development than poorer applicants.

The study’s findings have come as no surprise for two of the UK’s biggest teachers’ unions. Both the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT), two Education International (EI) affiliates, have long shared concerns over negative impacts of the free school programme, such as unequal access to quality education for all, also echoed by the IOE.

NASUWT: Concerns about growing social segregation

“Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are being poured into a handful of free schools,” said NASUWT General Secretary Chris Keates. “Most of these qualified for the funding on the basis they were being established in deprived areas. Yet they appear to have no real desire to serve those communities and are instead using their freedoms to exclude those local children who need the most help. Our children and young people deserve better.”

For Keates, the study highlights issues that the NASUWT predicted would occur when the current academies and free schools programme was conceived by the Coalition Government. She said that the IOE’s work confirms the union’s earlier warning that the ability of free schools and academies to police their own admissions would create opportunities for unfair selection to flourish.

NUT: Free schools not raising education standards

“Even if free schools do open in disadvantaged areas, there is growing evidence that intake will be discriminatory,” stated NUT Deputy General Secretary Kevin Courtney. “Today's findings by the IOE are similar to those of the National Audit Office, which recently found that just 16 per cent of pupils at 81 free schools were eligible for free school meals, compared to 25 per cent in neighbouring schools. Free schools are not serving their communities to anything like the same extent. Like-for-like comparisons of school achievement become less reliable as a result.”

Courtney argued that free schools are not raising standards, however, despite Government claims.

“The increasing number of free schools that are being set up by large academy chains and existing trusts also gives the lie to the idea that the free school programme is driven by parental demand,” Courtney said. “What is being offered to parents is an untested experiment with children’s futures.”

The complete study, which is slated to be published later this year, is the first of its kind to analyse the social composition of all of the primary, 88, and secondary, 63, free schools over the programme’s first three years that were opened by September 2013.