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Competitive effects of free schools on student outcomes in neighbouring schools

Researchers: Dr Rob Higham | Dr Jake Anders ...

Project overview

This project will develop a major analysis of free schools and their competitive effects on student outcomes and neighbouring schools.

Free schools were introduced by the coalition government following the 2010 general election to make it possible for parents, teachers, charities and businesses to set up their own schools. The government has invested significantly in the development and promotion of these schools, arguing not just that they will be excellent in their own right and offer parents better choices, but also that this will create new pressures for improvement in neighbouring schools. However, there is no rigorous evidence on the outcomes for students, and some concern that free schools may have a negative impact on neighbouring schools.

With 520 free schools now open, and a government target for 900 free schools by 2020, there is now a clear need for new, independent research.

This project uses a mixed-methods design, combining quantitative and qualitative methods and statistical analysis of longitudinal data to compare free schools opened between 2011 and 2020 with their 9 closest mainstream schools. The researchers will also develop in-depth case studies of the local markets in which free schools open, creating new knowledge on the interrelationships between school choice, competition and improvement.

This research will provide evidence for how free schools influence local patterns of choice and competition, as well as their effects on pupil outcomes. It will also identify whether free schools have a disproportionate impact on outcomes for socioeconomically disadvantaged children. The research team will work with key stakeholders from the DfE throughout the project, and findings will inform policy on how decisions are made about opening new schools.


  • Dr Rob Higham
    University College London
  • Dr Jake Anders
    University College London
  • Professor Francis Green
    University College London
  • Dr Golo Henseke
    University College London

  • Programme Head, Education
    Nuffield Foundation
  • Director, Education
    Nuffield Foundation

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We aim to improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

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