Natalie Evans of the New Schools Network (the charity that helps with the establishment of free schools) thinks that there is ‘no question’ that there will be more failures associated with the programme. In one sense she is right. It would be unrealistic to expect the programme to be free from further hiccups, just as it would be foolish expect all academies or maintained schools to be free from scandal. Nonetheless, the high-profile failings at free schools like Al-Madinah in Derby and the King Science Academy in Bradford have provided ample ammunition to critics of the programme. Such criticism raises an interesting question: how should we judge the success of the free school programme?
One approach could be to look at the raw numbers. 174 free schools have opened since September 2011. This suggests that there is at least some demand for free schools, even if many of these schools are yet to reach full capacity. As a measure of success, however, these figures are unenlightening. Many people would question the validity of using demand as a criterion of success, even if we are all tempted to do so when it supports our own ideological preference. In the early stages of the programme one of the great ironies was how quick many of those who opposed free schools on the grounds that they represented the first step in the marketisation of education were to use market signals (how many schools have opened, how full they are) as a basis for their criticism. Ultimately, using the number of free schools opening as the de facto criterion of success is to succumb to an unhealthy degree of circularity. The DfE is doing everything it can to encourage more free schools to open. The number that open tells us something about the success of the DfE in promoting them and something about demand from those who want to open them, but it tells us little about how effective these schools are. Using the raw numbers as a benchmark is to misunderstand the fundamental aim of the free school programme.
It is for a similar reason that much of the criticism of free schools from the left has rather missed the point. Free schools have been criticised for being unrepresentative of the local community and for opening in areas where there is little need for school places (or alternatively, for not opening in areas where need is greatest). Labour in particular have used the latter as a basis for attacking the programme and have suggested this as a point of differentiation between free schools and its suggested alternative, parent-led academies. The problem with this critique is that misunderstands the philosophy of free schools. The programme is not designed as a way of effectively allocating school places or of ensuring that schools are socially representative. Quite simply they are designed to improve school quality by introducing an element of competition. It is perfectly compatible with this aim for free schools to be opening in areas where there is little or no need for additional places. The opening of a free school will, so the theory goes, force other schools in the area to up their game. From this perspective the creation of surplus places is not a bad thing: it is essential to the goal of improving school quality.
The most promising approach, therefore, would be to focus on the degree to which this central aim – improving school quality through the introduction of new schools free from the shackles of bureaucracy – has been achieved. This is notoriously difficult. Quantitative analysis of school performance is a worthy venture but rarely provides clear and definitive answers. Research of this type into the performance of academies has produced mixed results. In the US where there is a substantial body of research looking at the impact of charter schools on attainment the picture is similarly mixed. Both those who support and those who oppose charter schools are able to cite studies that support their position. This should not be taken as suggesting that such research is pointless (it isn’t) or that the research is equally strong on both sides (it definitely isn’t). It does, however, illustrate the difficulty of expecting such methods to provide clear answers in the medium term. It would be foolish to expect such research – even in five years’ time – to be able to tell us much about the success of the free school programme.
In light of these difficulties should we simply abandon any attempt to measure the success of free schools? Doing so may well suit policymakers. The main reason politicians don’t publish success criteria when introducing policy is not because they understand the methodological difficulties associated with measuring them. It is because they fear setting themselves up for failure. It suits governments if the only criterion for the success of public policy is longevity.
It is important that we do not allow free schools to be subject to the scrutiny of time alone. Nor should we let the difficulties associated with trying to quantify the impact of free schools prevent us from taking a robust approach to evaluating their success. For now we can learn more than you might think from the successes and failures of the early free schools. Taking this more qualitative approach requires us to investigate exactly what free schools are doing with the freedom and autonomy granted to them. This is why the scandal at Al-Madinah does matter. One failing free school does not necessarily undermine the whole programme. It is relevant, however, if features of the free school programme itself makes those failings more likely or more difficult to address. As others have argued , Al-Madinah can easily be seen in this light. Ultimately the best way of assessing the success of free schools is to scrutinise them on their own terms: does the choice, flexibility and autonomy that the programme seeks to introduce make our schools better or worse? Serious analysis of the track record of free schools (including Al-Madinah) is the most promising way of answering this question in the short term. For now the jury is still out.