The evidence does not add up – Free schools

Free Schools: Policy Exchange report finds no positive effect for nearby schools

Today David Cameron is set to announce an expansion of the free schools programme. According to media reports he will justify this on the basis that “free schools do not just help the performance of their pupils, but pupils in surrounding schools”.

This is a direct quote from Policy Exchange report, “A Rising Tide”, (released today) which analyses the impact of free schools on the existing schools that are close to them. But the data in the report actually shows very mixed results and does not provide the basis for this quote or for Cameron’s overall claim.

Do the primaries closest to primary free schools show a faster increase? No

The Policy Exchange report is clear on this: “Schools closest to Free Schools perform in line with national results at primary.” There is no extra increase for schools close to free schools.

An analysis comparing the closest schools with the national average, based on the increase in KS2 results since the year the free school opened, shows virtually no difference. Indeed the only opening year for which the results were different shows slightly worse performance by those closest to a free school.



Do the secondaries closest to secondary free schools show a faster increase? No

The report claims that schools closest to free schools perform “better than … national average at secondary”. However this claim is not supported by the data. If we discount those opening in 2011, where Policy Exchange accepts the sample is too small (just five schools), then there is virtually no difference between the change in results in schools close to free schools and those nationally. For 2012 and 2013 openers, the fall nin GCSE results is exactly the same and for 2014 openers there is just a 1% difference.


The argument for free schools is that they introduce competition that will improve the performance of all schools in the area. This is the basis of Cameron’s argument and is the argument tested in the Policy Exchange document. However the data clearly does not support this. Overall the change in results of schools closest to a free school are remarkably similar to those nationally.

Other factors influence the schools involved. In particular 51% of primary free schools and 29% of secondary free schools in the study are in London, according to NUT figures. Given that London schools have, in recent years, improved at a faster rate than those nationally then schools close to free schools would be expected to benefit from this London effect, but do not appear to.

Note: The data above is taken directly from the Policy Exchange report. Copies of the relevant tables are below in the Appendix.

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