The world of education has never been short of initiatives and fads, some of which added value whereas many do not. While the number of Free Schools remains relatively small compared to the total stock of local maintained schools across England, the considerable political and financial investment that they have received will inevitably draw attention from many quarters.
The most up-to-date evidence shows that we cannot yet determine with confidence whether Free Schools have indeed raised educational standards. On that basis, it does not seem prudent to claim that they are the most successful education policy in the modern era, let alone the entire post-war period. The policy itself is also open to change, with Justine Greening announcing in one of her last acts as Education Secretary that Free Schools would be focused on more “challenging areas” in 2018. Such changes could make it more problematic to track the effect of Free Schools on school standards over time. Furthermore, even if Free Schools do indeed succeed in driving up standards, there is then a further question of whether any benefits that we may eventually see can reasonably justify the money spent on achieving said benefits.
This paper calculates that over £3.6 billion has been spent on Free Schools thus far. Supporters may choose to label this as money well spent, whereas critics are likely to claim it is precious money wasted (particularly in a climate of financial austerity). This paper does not aim to settle the debate over the value-for-money of Free Schools, rather to provide an additional lens through which to view the costs and benefits of the programme both now and in future. Supporters and critics will no doubt continue to cherry-pick individual case studies of Free Schools that confirm their respective points of view. What would be more useful for all sides of the debate is to continue monitoring the examination results and Ofsted ratings of Free Schools in the coming years as well as providing an on-going analysis of the overall programme expenditure. By doing this, we may finally be able to answer the question of whether the Free Schools programme as a whole has led to a tangible improvement in the lives of pupils and parents across the country.