Free Schools Planned for North of England

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Earlier this week, The Sunday Times posted figures that indicated pupils in the north of England are being “let down” by schools. These figures suggest that 15% of northern children are making below-average progress between the end of primary school and their GCSEs, compared with 8% of their peers in the south. The Sunday Times also reported that new free schools are planned for the north of England, to tackle these claims of a north-south divide in school standards. The six areas targeted will be:

  • Hartlepool
  • Knowsley
  • Middlesbrough
  • Redcar
  • Stoke-on-Trent
  • Stockton-on-Tees

In response to this, Education Datalab posted an article that highlighted that, based on provisional progress 8 data for 2019, 16 out of 18 of the lowest-performing local authorities are located in the north.

Although The Sunday Times describes this as a “huge gap” in attainment between the north and the south, it does not take into account factors known to influence progress 8, such as gender, disadvantage and ethnic background. Once these factors were taken into account, scores for councils in the north east all improved, while scores for London boroughs “tend to fall”, according to Education Datalab.

One suggestion from Dave Thomson, chief statistician at Datalab, is that many of these seemingly higher-performing groups of pupils may have benefitted from the “London effect” – access to better funding and subsequently better schools. He added, “White British, long-term disadvantaged pupils perform no better in London and the south than elsewhere. If anything, they appeared to perform better in Yorkshire and the Humber than anywhere else.”

Despite this, the identification of the six regions above suggests that the next free school wave may contribute to addressing the need for good schools in these or similar areas. This follows Gavin Williamson’s recent call to change the fact that free schools are “disproportionately” located in London and the south east, by rolling out more free schools in the Midlands, the north and the south west.  

Previous free school waves allowed applications for independent schools to convert into the state sector as free schools, single-form entry schools and stand-alone post-16 provision. More recent waves have tightened the criteria to almost entirely prohibit such applications, and to specifically target more challenging areas, including those with high levels of disadvantaged pupils, those with the lowest educational standards and a need for more good school places.

To date, the free school programme has delivered over 400,000 new places for pupils. These schools are three times more likely to be located in an area of deprivation, yet are outperforming other types of school in many areas, including Key Stage 1, GCSE results and A-levels. With the demand for good school places outstripping supply in many areas of England, the next wave of free schools has the potential to deliver significant and lasting change for many communities.

To find out more about our track record in free school formation, click here.