The Education Policy Institute has published its latest assessment of the free schools programme in England.

The new report draws on the most recent data from the Department for Education, providing the most detailed, up to date findings on free schools.

First opened in 2011, free schools are state-funded schools independent of local authorities, set up by parents, charities and other groups. Today, there are over 500 in England.

In September 2019 the government announced a new wave of free schools, with a further 220 set to be opened over the coming years. Ahead of this expansion, this new report from EPI examines the strengths and weaknesses of the programme to date – including whether it is successfully targeting areas in the country that are most in need of school places. 

You can download the full report here


Key findings


Are free schools being targeted in the right areas?

Free schools were set up to target areas with shortages of school places and areas with a lack of high-quality school places.

 In targeting areas with shortages of school places we find that:

  • Free schools have successfully increased school places at primary level, having added 11 places per 1,000 pupils in areas with the greatest demand for school places. Free schools at secondary have only added 4 places per 1,000 pupils in these areas with high demand.
  • At the same time, secondary free schools have been opened in areas where there is far less demand for school places: free schools have added an extra 15 places per 1,000 pupils in these low demand areas. Primary schools, on the other hand, have added an extra 4 places per 1,000 pupils in low-demand areas.

Of those areas with low demand for school places, we examined whether free schools are still fulfilling their other aim of targeting those with a lack of high-quality schools. We find that:

  • Secondary free schools have failed to reach these poor performing areas. Just 5 places per 1,000 have been created in the lowest performing areas, while in contrast, 18 places per 1,000 pupils have been created in the highest performing areas.
  • At primary level, 5 places per 1,000 pupils have been created in the lowest performing areas, while 3 per 1,000 pupils places have been created in the highest performing areas.

Who attends free schools? Are they serving the poorest pupils?


  • At both primary and secondary, free schools are successfully targeting economically disadvantaged areas in England. However, at primary level, free school intakes are still more affluent than expected for their local areas: the proportion of pupils from poorer backgrounds (those eligible for free school meals) is 12.5%. If it matched the areas it served, it would be 15.4%.
  • Secondary free schools, by contrast, do have intakes that are generally reflective of their communities. 14.0% of pupils are from poorer backgrounds, compared to 14.6% in the area.
  • When considering the socio-economic background of free school pupils, they are more likely to be described by the Office for National Statistics as ‘inner city cosmopolitan’, ‘urban cultural mix’ and ‘young ethnic communities’. Pupils from these areas represent 48% of all free school pupils.
  • These neighbourhood types are among the more economically disadvantaged in England but are not typically educationally disadvantaged: while from disadvantaged backgrounds, they are from local areas which typically perform highly in terms of their academic performance.
  • Other disadvantaged areas, however, remain largely overlooked by the free schools programme. Pupils from ‘hampered neighbourhoods’ and ‘challenged white communities’ are considerably underserved. These are areas where education standards have been historically very low.
  • A small but growing minority of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) attend special free schools nationally (less than 1%). The number of special free schools is however set to double in the coming years.

How do pupils perform in free schools?


  • There is a mixed picture of outcomes in free schools, with pupils in 2018 scoring below average results at the end of primary, but above average at the end of secondary.
  • Average pupil attainment in primary free schools is among the lowest of all state-funded schools.
  • In sharp contrast, at secondary level, pupils in free schools make the most progress out of all state-funded schools.
  • Much – but by no means all – of the high performance of some secondary free schools can be explained by the characteristics of the pupils who attend them. Free schools, particularly those identified as high performing, are disproportionately drawing their pupils from neighbourhood types that already achieve higher results on average.

Are free schools popular with parents?


  • Free schools are less likely to be parents’ first choice when applying for schools. Of all choices expressed for free schools, less than a third were a first preference – the lowest of any school type.
  • Free schools are less likely to be regarded by parents as their ‘local school’. Of those with a free school as their nearest school, at primary only a fifth of parents choose the free school, while at secondary only a quarter do. However, free schools do appear popular once we account for the number of places available in the school.
  • There are also reasons why free schools may be overlooked by some parents: some may deliberately promote an alternative education offer to other local schools. Free schools also become more popular among those in the local area as they become more established.

The future of the free schools programme: recommendations


1) Free schools continue to be created in areas where there is already excess capacity and existing provision is good. Any expansion of free schools should therefore be targeted towards areas where pupil outcomes are low.

2) The government should look beyond simple measures of economic disadvantage and consider how they can improve outcomes in areas with entrenched underperformance.

3) The government should be mindful when looking to replicate the practices of successful free schools in other areas. Rather than aspects such as the curriculum, teaching, or behaviour policies, high performance may instead be down to free schools’ intakes, and their admission of pupils from areas which typically perform very highly.