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‘Researching free schools: What do we know? What do we need to know?’ meeting held on 17th November 2015


A very successful RIG meeting was held at the UCL Institute of Education. In the morning, Dr Rob Higham of the Institute spoke about ‘The emerging free school landscape: new providers, local hierarchies and competitive pressure’. Drawing on his own research, Rob explored the kinds of groups that are accepted to open free schools, who these schools serve and the potential of free schools to increase competitive pressures on other schools in their local areas. In relation to the first two points, he suggested that proposers were more likely to be accepted if they possessed certain forms of expertise valued by the Government and free school pupils exhibit, on average, rather lower levels of disadvantage than neighbouring schools. In relation to competition, Rob’s research suggested that the competitive pressures generated by free schools are variously perceived by those schools which might be subject to these pressures and that the strategies these schools adopt in response also vary in relation to these perceptions.

There were three presentations in the afternoon, drawing on doctoral research:

  • ‘Agency and liberty in structural reforms: Experiences of influence in free school governance and strategy’ (Philip Mason, University of Hertfordshire)
  • ‘The battle between autonomy and accountability: an examination of the vision and reality of two case study free schools’ (Louise Pagden, University of Winchester)
  • ‘Private schools for free? The factors influencing some parents’ choice of a free school’ (Rebecca Morris, University of Birmingham)

Lively discussion sessions generated by the papers raised a number of questions, all of which have research potential. What individuals and groups do free schools empower – who grasps the opportunity that free schools provide and what do they do with it? How far are free schools producing alternatives to mainstream schools – or are processes of isomorphism in operation leading to more similarities than differences? What exactly does freedom mean in the free school context – how does free school autonomy differ for example, from that of academies? How far are free schools engaging with local school collaborative networks – what is their impact on emerging local schooling landscapes? How sustainable are free schools – what conditions are necessary to ensure continued success when the initiators are no longer engaged?

Some of the presentations from the day are available under ‘Document Library’ with the preface ‘Free Schools’.

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