Free Schools: In Search of Some Clarity

Sophie Rodger's picture
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Despite some costly and embarrassing setbacks that threatened to cast a dark shadow over the start of the new academic year, Michael Gove may breathe a sigh of relief as 55 of his new free schools have completed their first full fortnight of the new school term.

But the anxious wait is far from over: with his announcement in July that at least 100 more such schools have received government approval to open from next September onwards, the next twelve months will be crucial for the Education Secretary who is under significant pressure to ensure that his radical free schools project delivers all of the positive results that have been promised of it.

Supporters of the project are confident though. In a recent copy of The Times, Philip Collins – former Chief Speech Writer to Tony Blair - took aim at all of those “critics willing their failure” in his piece contending that “opposition to free schools is nonsensical”. Seeking to dispel all remaining doubt (and echoing countless statements made by Gove on the issue), he hinges his case on four main claims: free schools bring in new money and new ideas; they tailor what they do to what parents want; they transfer power from the bureaucracy to parents and teachers; and, most significant of all, by doing all of these things they perform the single most important public good – they raise standards. Case closed, then?

Not quite. The problem with this notion that decentralization and free schools raise standards is that it is premised on the false idea that our school system can be improved by introducing a sort of quasi-market mechanism.

British consumers, for example, benefit from a privatized supermarket system in which various different chains compete with each other in order to attract the most customers: Sainsbury’s keeps its prices down because it knows that if its goods become too expensive, its customers will choose to go to the Tesco down the road instead. Gove and his proponents believe that our school system can work according to the same principle: if you decentralize and allow private companies, teachers and parents to set up their own schools, then other schools in the area - now faced with competition – will be forced to improve the product that they offer in order to retain their pupils, or they will simply wither and die. Standards are thus driven up.

As countless research studies have shown, however, the reality of these neat theoretical moves is that they don’t actually deliver empirically. Why? Because, in practice, a number of the assumptions that we make when we imagine our school system to operate like a market simply don’t hold.

Demand side mechanisms – parents and choice

On the demand side, for example, we assume that parents will exercise choice given the option and that they will do so equally and rationally. That is, standards will rise because all parents will actively seek the ‘best’ (highest quality) school available, even if that means moving their child from an underperforming school to a better one.

As a 2010 paper entitled ‘Markets in Education’ written by Waslander, Pater, and van der Weide for the OECD shows, however, these assumed mechanisms on the demand side of the education market are less than straightforward. While large numbers of parents do indeed exercise choice when given the option, not all parents exercise choice equally – rather, choice is strongly related to socio-economic background with different subgroups of parents being over- and under-represented. In particular, they found that more affluent and well-educated parents are more likely to exercise choice, alongside those parents who are more heavily involved in their child’s education.

Drawing on a study looking at attendance patterns of charter schools in the US, the paper also notes that; “white parents more often try to avoid schools with high proportions of minority and low-income students, while minority and religious groups may deliberately opt out for their own schools.” Given this finding, the assumption that all parents select schools on the basis of quality is also quite incorrect. Even in Britain it has been found that while academic factors are the most important stated reasons for school choice by parents, the best predictors for actual choice behaviour are the socio-economic and ethnic composition of schools (which may indicate that parents implicitly use school composition as indicators for school quality), as well as simply location, with less affluent parents giving more weight to a school’s proximity than its quality.

We can also say, then, that parents put unequal pressure on schools to improve. Those who have chosen a lower performing school because of its location rather than its performance indicators, for example, are less likely to move their child to a better school even if they know it is underperforming. Some will doubtless leave, but “the vast majority will not”: an indication that market mechanisms by themselves are unlikely to provide strong enough forces on the demand side of the market which could improve education standards in any substantial way.

Supply side mechanisms – Schools and competition

On the supply side, we assume that schools will naturally compete with their neighbours and that they will respond to competition by improving the education that they offer, yet neither of these assumptions automatically hold either. The introduction of market mechanisms may lead to greater cooperation between schools instead, and there is little empirical evidence to suggest that the most likely response to competition is improvement to the ‘hard core’ of the school – that is, to the quality of its teaching and learning. Indeed, a more likely response – as seen in Sweden, for example – is that schools will develop subtle selection techniques in order to exclude anyone who might damage their reputation.

Is this a market?

Our quasi-market school system does not deliver empirically, then, because it isn’t really a market at all. Indeed, the entire core of real markets – the pricing mechanism – is almost completely absent from our model: in our scenario, the ‘market’ is dominated by the state which forces everyone to take the product by law, and then funds 90% of places so that the upfront cost to parents is nil.

This highlights a second problem: for a market to function efficiently, neoclassical theory tells us that there must be elasticity of demand and supply, yet in our case the state is hardly willing or able to justify funding an excess of school places or teachers. In practice, then, successful schools can’t easily expand to match increasing demand as normal market forces would require and dictate.

Finally, it is entirely contrary to free market principles (forgetting about the evident exceptionalism of banks) for the state to step in and prevent a school from failing - yet this is exactly what happens. Instead of allowing a school to become so bad that even the most disinterested parents remove their children and force its closure, the local authority is far more likely to find itself under pressure to ‘turn it around’ with extra funding and attention. Failing schools are simply not allowed to wither and die.

So what does all this mean? For a start, it means that when Gove tells us that free schools are going to ‘raise standards’ by creating more local competition, he simply hasn’t done his homework. Study after study after study has shown that the effects of quasi-market policies on educational standards are so minimal as to be almost entirely insignificant.

But what it also tells us is that there is real reason to be concerned about the introduction of free schools into our education system. When parents are given more choice, the simple and uncomfortable fact is that we risk seeing even greater segregation between schools by ethnic, socio-economic, and ability groups. We can already see it happening: more than one third of the free schools scheduled to open from September 2013 will be faith schools, and over three quarters of last year’s free schools took fewer deprived pupils than their LEA equivalents.

Put plainly, Michael Gove’s free school project is a damaging and unnecessary step towards greater segregation within an already lamentably unequal state system. Those of us who oppose this are not lacking in sense as Philip Collins may like to believe: rather, we have looked at the best education system in the world and seen that it is built on socially diverse mixed-ability comprehensives, filled with highly trained and empowered teachers, and have reached the conclusion that that is the kind of system that we want all children in our society to have.
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Comments

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 11:12

Thank you for writing this Sophie. It presents the evidence and arguments very clearly. Unfortunately many of the commentators on these issues don't take the time to look at the evidence from here and abroad. It would be good to have a link to the study to which you refer in this piece.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 12:25

Sophie,

Most of this argument rests on false assumptions. The rest draws the wrong inferences.

Let's start at the bottom with the bizarre argument that free schools will intensify social segregation.

...more than one third of the free schools scheduled to open from September 2013 will be faith schools, and over three quarters of last year’s free schools took fewer deprived pupils than their LEA equivalents.

Faith schools tend to be less socially exclusive, not more. By taking fewer deprived pupils than their neighbours, free schools like the WLFS are reducing, not worsening segregation and its effects. The 25% or so of WLFS pupils on FSM would, had the school not come into being, most probably have attended schools with a much larger proportion of deprived pupils like themselves. We know that deprived children do better when mixed in with more affluent students, rather than being ghettoised. By mixing more affluent students with deprived ones in a reasonable proportion, the free school contributes to reducing segregation.

Segregation, as you hint at yourself, is the norm in many inner city areas now. Affluent parents use their economic power to buy houses in the catchments of good schools. Meanwhile, poor parents who cannot do this, along with those who are uninterested (not 'disinterested', nb), are left with what become 'sink' schools.

Free schools offer an opportunity for those who cannot afford to buy property close to a good school to find one in another way, thereby escaping enforced segregation.


.... then other schools in the area – now faced with competition – will be forced to improve the product that they offer in order to retain their pupils, or they will simply wither and die. Standards are thus driven up.

This beneficial competition effect may or may not happen. Either way, it is not and never has been the chief rational for free schools and would only manifest itself over the longue durée. One of the more immediate advantages of choice is to stimulate diversity of provision. Free schools offer parents an extension of choice in terms of widening the range of school ethoses, specialisms, styles of pedagogy and so on. It's more a cultural than economic thing.

That said, your assertion that the positive effects of free schools are not borne out by research is plain wrong. Have you read Böhlmark and Lindahl's latest research (June 2012)?

The results, which show the impact of free school competition on pupils in both free and municipal schools, indicate that a 10 percentage-point increase in the share of 9th-grade pupils attending free schools in the municipality generates (1) about a 2 percentile rank point better test score in mathematics and English; (2) a 2 percentile rank point better performance in mathematics and English in the first year of upper-secondary school; (3) a 2 percentage point increase in the share who attend university; and (4) four more weeks of schooling on average........

........ it is important to note that about 70-80% of the positive impact does not stem from the fact that free schools are better than municipal schools – but rather that competition forces municipal schools to improve. It also turns out that the effects are not significant until after about one decade after the reform.


You can find Gabriel Sahlgren's commentary, together with a link to the full paper, here:

http://www.iea.org.uk/blog/game-set-and-match-new-evidence-from-the-swed...

Sarah's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 13:58

'Free schools offer an opportunity for those who cannot afford to buy property close to a good school to find one in another way, thereby escaping enforced segregation'.

Not necessarily so. If the admissions policy adopted by the Free School gives any sort of priority to those who live closest to it (which it should if it is aiming to serve the local community in which it is situated) and it becomes popular it will attract parents to live near to it creating an increased demand for housing in that area and pushing prices up. That will inevitably lead to richer parents being better placed to access school places. The only way around this is to allocate places by random allocation/lottery or banding by ability.

I fail to see how that is any different at all from the current situation - other than that it might take a little time for the effect on housing prices to become evident.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 24/09/2012 - 17:21

From the study you quote Ricky.
"The key difference is the ability of for-profit actors to mobilise capital as well as scale up – thus providing more competition across the board. Michael Gove should pay attention."
I suspect Michael Gove is not capable of understanding the implications of this comment. What do you think the comment means in context Ricky?

Ricky your argument that WLFS is benefiting disadvantaged students by concentrating them in some schools and diluting them in one is just bonkers. You've clearly not got a clue about the realities you're talking about and are clutching at statistical straws you seem like they may be vaguely plausible to those who, like you, can't conceptualise the implications of the numbers you are talking about.

People tend, in general, to want their children to be education with children who are settled, well behaved, organised, organised hard working and aspirational rather than with children who arrive at school overtired, with huge issues, not in a fit state to learn and with no confidence and aspirations because peer pressure is such a strong force and because teaching is likely to be better if classes are not disrupted. So they choose to send their kids to the school with the nice catchment area rather than the one in the middle of the socially deprived council estate. This substantial force for movement has nothing wahtsoever to do with the quality of the school or the quality of the teaching. Kids who've been up all night, are pumped full of sugar and are dealing with huge personal issues do not disrupt lessons because the schools is bad. They disrupt lessons because they've been up all night, are pumped full of sugar and are dealing with huge personal issues.

So if you create choice you get movement of this type. Now this doesn't actually matter if you support both schools, allowing them professional freedom, the one in the council estate more funding and both and the the ability to evolve to respond to their circumstances. The school in the council estate should improve and the movement effect will be less dramatic. But we don't allow those schools the professional freedom they need because the strategies they generally need to use to be great schools are not ofstedproof.

Segregating communities by faith is different. At secondary level in particular I don't think we should be doing it. I think we should have secular schools with multi-faith rooms which can be used by different groups - bringing the benefits each has to offer to the school community. I know others share my concerns.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 15:24

Sarah, I love your idea that rich people will be selling their Belgravia and Chelsea mansions to move to Hackney or Southwark so they can be next to a free school..... and equilibrium will be restored. If only. Sadly, it's not going to happen. Perhaps you aren't too closely acquainted with the social dynamics of London life?

Sarah's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 22:46

Ricky - perhaps you can't follow your own logic. You said that free schools offer an opportunity for those who can't afford to buy property close to a good school. If a free school has an admissions policy based on distance and it is popular then it will only be those who live in a radius around it who will get places - exactly the same as any maintained school. Therefore those who really want a place at that school will have to live close to it or forgo a place there. I'm waiting to hear your explanation as to how a free school will avoid the postcode effect. I'm all ears......

And it's clear that you believe that life begins and ends in London. Unfortunately this government also makes the same mistake. 'Choice' might work if you have lots of schools within travelling distance but it's entirely irrelevant if there is only one school within an acceptable travelling distance. And if that one school is a faith school that has edged out a community school where is the choice then for parents of other faiths or none for example? What happens if what parents really want is the choice of a local school accountable to its local population through locally democracy? Is that a choice that parents should be allowed - or are they only allowed to have the choices that Gove thinks they should be allowed to have?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 13:49

Thank you, Sarah, for pointing out the problems inherent in applying market forces to an education system. Many of your points are upheld in the answer to "Do market forces in education increase achievement and efficiency?" in faqs above.

One of the criticisms of research into the effect of user choice in schools is that the evidence cited is often restricted to test scores in a restricted number of subjects (usually reading and maths). This ignores other important aspects of the curriculum.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 13:54

It is laughable for commentators to say that "competition" from free schools and the like "forces" other schools to improve. Such competition is likely to result in schools subtly excluding pupils who are likely to depress their results. We're already seeing this in some school's admission criteria - selecting by aptitude, particularly music which is more likely to be demonstrated by pupils whose parents have paid for lessons; letting it be known that the syllabus offered isn't suitable for all (only the academically-inclined need apply); having expensive items of uniform (eg uncessary hats - cost c£24, or blazers that cost more than can be purchased at Asda, insisting on PE kit with logos rather than allowing parents to buy a twin-pack for half the price from M&S).

And then there's "competition" which results in teachers fiddling the test scores to make it appear pupils are doing better than they are:

http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6111394

PricewaterhouseCoopers found in 2008 that when schools improve they employ a wide variety of strategies which have nothing to do with a school's status (ie as an academy or non-academy) (see faqs above). Unfortunately, the Government persist in ignoring this and promote certain schools as being a magic bullet for raising standards.

As Animal Farm's sheep would bleat:

"Free schools gooooood! Community schools baaaaad!"

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 14:34

Re the Swedish paper linked above (the link cited is actually broken): the publishers made it clear that the paper was "provisional" for discussion purposes. Anyone quoting it should stress its provisional nature.

"IZA Discussion Papers often represent preliminary work and are circulated to encourage discussion. Citation of such a paper should account for its provisional character."

Link to the discussion paper is here: http://ftp.iza.org/dp6683.pdf

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 15:06

the link cited is actually broken

No, it isn't. I just connected to it via the link in my comment above. Gabriel Sahlgren is worth the detour.

Taster;

I am now accustomed to the fact that British journalists resort to extensive confirmation bias when arguing that free schools – especially for-profit ones – are driving down education standards in Sweden. The evidence does not support their case. ....

and via an ('evidence') internal link in that post...

Finally, let me comment on the issue of segregation. Does the research at least indicate that the choice reform has increased inequality in achievement? Not at all. The evidence suggests that choice has not had any impact on the variation in achievement between pupils.


http://www.iea.org.uk/blog/game-set-and-match-new-evidence-from-the-swed...

http://www.iea.org.uk/blog/opponents-of-school-choice-are-misinterpretin...

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 17:00

I'm glad the link is now working - it wasn't when I first tried it which is why I had to google to find the original paper. Unfortunately, Sahlgren ("worth a detour") doesn't point out that the paper he cites is a provisional discussion paper. The publishers asked that anyone citing the report should make the provisional nature clear.

Secondly, Sahlgren doesn't make it clear that the increase in results was only modest (although "not trivial"). And nobody adresses the question about whether it is valid to judge schools on the results of tests in only a small number of subjects (see faqs above) - quite apart from the question of increased segregation.

The research mentions Chile and its independent schools but doesn't mention the widespread protests by Childean students against for-profit schools and calling for free, quality public schools.

http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2012/06/28/chileans-students-prote...

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 17:11

"Finally, let me comment on the issue of segregation" - but the answer doesn't address segregation - it talks about "inequality of achievement". Yet the paper to which Sahlgren refers has a lot to say about segregation and it doesn't mean "inequality of achievement". (See my post below 3.09)

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 15:09

The Swedish paper is a solid piece of research*. While finding that the positive effects (cut-and-pasted in RT's thread above) were "not enormous effects but not trivial either" the researchers highlighted the "sorting" effects of user choice and the way it increased segregation:

"Sorting effects of school choice have also been found in other studies: Fiske and Ladd (2000) look at the impacts of a large-scale voucher reform in New Zealand in the early 1990s. They find that there was an inflow of students with high social background to independent schools. Urquiola (2005) estimates the effects of choice between school districts in the US and finds that increases in the availability of school districts leads to increased sorting (by race and parental education). Söderström and Uusitalo (2005) study the impact on segregation of the admission selection reform increasing school choice opportunities for students applying to Stockholm high schools in 2000. The reform is found to increase segregation by ability and family background, and between natives and immigrants."

A reasonable question, then, is to ask whether the small increases in results in a limited number of subjects is worth segregating young people. The OECD found (Education at a Glance 2011) that the best-performing school systems tend to be those that do not separate children.

*The publishers make it clear the research is provisional and request that anyone citing the paper should also make it clear. I have done so.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 15:16

The current edition of CentrePiece (LSE) has a really interesting examination by Steve Gibbons of how segregation actually happens in English education:

Valuing schooling through house prices: http://cep.lse.ac.uk/centrepiece/

Sarah's picture
Fri, 21/09/2012 - 14:08

The piece is interesting and confirms that good schools can push up the price of houses around them. But this provides no argument that free schools will do anything to overcome this segregation. I'm still waiting to hear your explanation as to how a free school can do this. I have seen no evidence that the oversubscription criteria of free schools relies any more heavily on random allocation or banding by ability than other types of schools. That being the case I fail to see how this effect would be any less evident in respect of free schools than other sorts of schools. Would you care to explain yourself?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 25/09/2012 - 09:27

Sarah

It's obvious. A free school will only open where there is a specific demand for it.

Q. Where is there most likely to be a demand for a new school/ new type of school?
A. Where parents are not happy with existing provision.
Q. Where are parents most likely to be unhappy with existing provision?
A. Where 'good schools' are either non-existent or so heavily oversubscribed that a parent would have little confidence of their child gaining a place in one.
Q. Where are 'good schools' most likely to be sited?
A. In areas with a predominantly middle class population.
Q. Which parents are most likely to have a realistic apprehension that they will not find a place for their child at such a school?
A. Parents who live on the margin of or outside the leafy catchment.
Q. Who lives outside the catchment of middle class housing areas?
A. Poorer families, on the whole.
Q. Why might they be keen on a free school opening nearby?
A. Because their own local schools have become sink schools and because the free school offers an extra chance to escape being allocated to the sink school.
Q. Would it help if the free school had a %age of FSM equal to the sink school?
A. No, that would just recreate the problems of the sink school on a new site.
Q. Would it help if the free school had a proportion of FSM higher than the local "good schools" but lower than the 'tipping-point' leading to 'challenging' status.
A. Yes, because then a fairly substantial cohort of children from deprived backgrounds would have been rescued from the grim alternative (i.e. attending the sink school) and OECD says deprived children do better when taught alongside more affluent kids.

(Note: for the purposes of the above, 'sink' is defined as a school which has lost the confidence of a. middle class people living locally and b. aspirational parents who are less well off. )

WLFS seems to me to be a good example of a school which has a socially and ethnically diverse intake, a reasonable level of FSM (higher than some 'good' schools nearby; lower than the challenging ones), maintains the confidence of the middle class and the aspirational and will do well by the kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who go there. If I lived in social housing in Hammersmith, wasn't a member of a faith group with a good school in the area, didn't think there was much chance of getting my kid into the good school in the leafy, middle class part of the borough, then WLFS would be top of my list. And without it existing, I'd feel pretty stuck.

Sarah's picture
Tue, 25/09/2012 - 10:59

Ricky. No it's far from obvious. I think your analysis is flawed.

Where is your evidence that free school applications are coming from areas where parents are unhappy with provision or where schools are poor? I'd genuinely like to see some analysis of this because in my experience there are some other drivers for free schools:

1. Places where local authorities are trying to reshape educational provision and where local people don't want to see schools closing at all eg any place where there is a move from three to two tier education. Suffolk being a case in point. These free schools are born out of opposition to change rather than seeking educational improvement.

2. People with an ambition to run their own school - often casting around for a place to open a school rather than responding to the needs of a specific community eg the Michaela School which still has yet to find a home. There are many other examples of schools which don't seem to know which community they intend to serve.

3. Private providers who want to access public money. Many examples of struggling independent schools seeking to become free schools. Also many examples of private nursery providers such as Montessori wanting to expand into mainstream education. Some of these have been found in breach of the admissions code through trying to give priority for places to their fee paying feeder schools/nurseries.

4. Opportunistic locals seeing a community building going spare who fancy running a school or simply want to prevent the development of land for housing (applicants include those living opposite to school buildings with one eye on their property values) - sometimes these applications have displaced other community developments which the majority of the local population supports but which are trumped by Gove because of the rules around disposal of school sites. This is just NIMBYism.

There are many free school applications in areas surrounded by good or excellent schools often in places with significant numbers of surplus places. So whilst there may be a 'demand' ie a 'want' it's far from clear there is any real 'need'. I can't see how they can be prioritised at a time when resources are so scarce and in the absence of any real evidence that Academy status has any bearing on whether school's improve or not.

I completely reject the concept of 'sink schools'. This is a media and political invention which is just a reflection of the fact that children from deprived backgrounds perform less well at school thereby placing the schools they attend in the lower reaches of the league tables creating the impression they are 'bad' schools. Yes this does have an impact on parental perceptions. Surely this is why we should be supporting those schools.

You still haven't explained the mechanism by which a popular free school can prevent a concentration of affluent parents building up around it in time, thereby pushing up the price of housing and recreating the problem which already exists.

What admissions policy do you think such schools should have? Should they seek to serve their local community first?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 25/09/2012 - 13:43

Where is your evidence that free school applications are coming from areas where parents are unhappy with provision or where schools are poor?

A free school cannot open unless it has a cohort of children whose parents have been so unhappy with existing provision they’d take the risk of sending their kids to a school with no track record…. And often no assured site.

1. Places where local authorities are trying to reshape educational provision and where local people don’t want to see schools closing…

Fair point about Suffolk. Is it true anywhere else? Perhaps this will be a salutary lesson to high-handed politicians and bureaucrats not to drive through restructuring against the will of parents.

2. People with an ambition to run their own school –

Yes, people who want to offer alternative styles of pedagogy…..e.g. Peter Hyman. Good luck to them.

…. casting around for a place to open a school rather than responding to the needs of a specific community eg the Michaela School….

Hardly fair. Michaela had a full list of parents signed up….. and may well have been oversubscribed pre-opening, but a spiteful council sold its site to a property developer two days before it got DfE approval rather than have the school. (The same council has also sold off 8 primary sites and yet is one of the noisiest complainers about the shortage of primary places).

4. Opportunistic locals seeing a community building going spare who fancy running a school or simply want to prevent the development of land for housing (applicants include those living opposite to school buildings with one eye on their property values) – sometimes these applications have displaced other community developments which the majority of the local population supports…

I find it hard to believe anyone would go through all the palaver of setting up a free school just because they dislike a planning application. Any evidence of this tendency?

So whilst there may be a ‘demand’ ie a ‘want’ it’s far from clear there is any real ‘need’.

So, the bureaucrat knows better than the parent, eh? And a child is for you not an individual with one shot at education, but merely something to fill a ‘surplus’ place?

I completely reject the concept of ‘sink schools’. This is a media and political invention…

Still in denial, Sarah? You should visit a prison. Talk to offenders about their school experiences. It will open your eyes.


You still haven’t explained the mechanism by which a popular free school can prevent a concentration of affluent parents building up around it in time, thereby pushing up the price of housing and recreating the problem which already exists.

It’s unlikely because the quality of the housing stock. But if it does happen….. someone can open another free school.

What admissions policy do you think such schools should have? Should they seek to serve their local community first?

Most people in urban areas don’t really live in “local communities”. Their social networks are more likely to be formed through work, religion, sport etc. than through mere geographical proximity. So, I think you can be too parochial by insisting on ‘local’. My own view is that 3 mile catchments are healthier than those measured in hundreds of yards. Where possible a school should serve a whole town or part of a city (e.g. north Bristol, West London etc.) such that its intake is socially comprehensive rather than skewed by the character of the proximate housing stock. But in the end, it should be up to the school governors, not you or me, and certainly not some education commissar in local government.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 25/09/2012 - 16:03

Q. Where is there most likely to be a demand for a new school/ new type of school?
A. Where there are people who are don't want comprehensive education (since that is the think they are choosing against).
Q. Where are parents most likely to be unhappy with existing provision?
A. Because they don't want their child mixing with a wide spectrum of children including the rough children off the estate or because they want their child to have a particular type of education.
Q. Where are ‘good schools’ most likely to be sited?
A. That depends on your definition of a good school. I think mine would be very different to yours Ricky.
Q. Which parents are most likely to have a realistic apprehension that they will not find a place for their child at such a school?
A. That depends on your definition of a good school. I think mine would be very different to yours Ricky.
Q. Who lives outside the catchment of middle class housing areas?
A. Why ask this question?
Q. Why might they be keen on a free school opening nearby?
A. Because it has oodles more money than the current school, glossy brochures, declares itself to be outstanding and is clearly a pet project of the SoS for Education - unlike the existing school.
Q. Would it help if the free school had a %age of FSM equal to the sink school?
A. If it has a lower % there may be more problems at the current school.
Q. Would it help if the free school had a proportion of FSM higher than the local “good schools” but lower than the ‘tipping-point’ leading to ‘challenging’ status.
A. The main problem to consider here is that you're creating half empty schools and that these breed all sorts of problems which will then need to be addressed. Schools with a high proportion of FSM aren't necessarily problem schools if they are properly supported and are not visited by a team of Ofsted inspectors who have no idea what schools with a high proportion of FSM are like.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 25/09/2012 - 17:33

Re: the discussion between Sarah and Ricky about sink schools.

"Sarah: I completely reject the concept of ‘sink schools’. This is a media and political invention…
Ricky: Still in denial, Sarah? You should visit a prison. Talk to offenders about their school experiences. It will open your eyes."

Sarah I went to a sinks school. It was hell. The staff had lost control and there was no teaching going on (except in music where we had a lovely teacher and I can still remember the songs he taught us - credit due to Mr Coulthard). In general the good teachers were the ones who let us out early so that we could get home without getting beaten up. It was hell. I remember one day the kids were chucking chairs at each other and the teacher told them that she wasn't going to pick them up because it was parents evening and she wanted their parents to see what they had done. I remember thinking that there was no chance their parents would bother to come in but suspecting the chairs would be cleared up before mine arrived. Sink school can rapidly come to exist in areas of extreme social deprivation and there were many of them in the early 1980s.

The labour academies program was often counterproductive and badly managed and it seeped beyond its remit but it was designed to tackle sink schools and it did so effectively in some cases. Other interventions such as the excellence cluster program also helped and were much less counterproductive. However Ofsted's interactions with schools in challenging areas were very variable in their quality as over time more and more inspectors had little experience with good practice in schools with challenging cohorts (which is often not so transparent to observe as good practice in schools with children who are almost all very well parented).

The problem we have now is that Michael Gove sees any school which is not a preferred schools as being a sink school - mainly because there are virtually none around now so he doesn't meet them. He needs there to be bad schools to make his policies make sense. Unfortunately he has Ofsted to label lots of schools as being bad schools because he can redesignate no cause for concern (satisfactory) as being failure and call in Ofsted on them when he likes.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 21:02

RIcky says "Faith schools tend to be less socially exclusive, not more. By taking fewer deprived pupils than their neighbours, free schools like the WLFS are reducing, not worsening segregation and its effects. The 25% or so of WLFS pupils on FSM would, had the school not come into being, most probably have attended schools with a much larger proportion of deprived pupils like themselves."

Well if that's the case then we must celebrate the way that the free Langley Park Primary is nobly battling segregation by only having 2% FSM compared to the locality norm of 20%. ( the Sutton Trust must be proud of them) ..Just look what huge contributions the policies of £27 /skirt, stupid hats and mandatory violin purchase can make for social mobility.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 21/09/2012 - 09:54

Rosie,

I suppose you mean Langley Hall, not Langley Park, which is up in Durham and doesn't fit your bill at all.

Langley Hall doesn't have a 'locality norm' at all, let alone one of 20%FSM. That's the problem with mean averages..... they are frequently far from being 'norms'.

Two of Langley Hall's neighbouring primaries - Castleview and Holy Family - have very low FSM (4.6% and 4.2% respectively).

Walk a little further and you get to Parlaunt Park (14.4%)..... still under the national average, which ain't surprising given that Langley St Mary ward is in the top 30% most affluent areas in the country according to the indices of deprivation.

However, once you quit the leafy bit and get to the social housing near the motorway and the industrial estate, you find Foxborough Primary, with a whopping 36.3% FSM and high BME...... which is what puts the average up. But still hardly a 'norm'.

Fact is, if you want your school 'local', chances are that you will end up with social segregation...... because housing tends to be that way. That's why I'm against overly strict distance criteria.... catchments of 3000 yards etc.

The skirt, according to the school website, is £23 not £27 .... which is par for the course down our way; but I'm with you on the silly hat.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 21/09/2012 - 09:59

Rosie - As you are aware, Langley Hall Primary Academy was recently censured by the Schools Adjudicator for naming a fee-paying nursery as a feeder school and for saying it would only "consider" pupils with a statement rather than making it clear the school would accept any pupil whose statement named the school.

http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2012/07/schools-adjudicator-finds-...

The Schools Adjudicator told the school to amend its admission criteria. That was in July. It is now nearly the end of September and the school has not done so.

http://www.lhpa.co.uk/admissions/

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 21/09/2012 - 10:18

Google search for school skirts found:

M&S black tube skirt £5
Debenham's pack of 2 black kilts £8-£13 depending on size
John Lewis navy skirt £10
Amazon box pleated skirt, assorted colours £3.99

And remember that some schools require items with embroidered logos which are often more expensive. For example, West London Free School PE polo shirt with logo is priced from £12.50 but a pack of 2 white ones is on sale at M&S from £7 - £10 depending on size (age 11 - 15).

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 25/09/2012 - 13:33

sarah - (no reply button). It's illuminating that RT talks of "sink" schools and then defines these as schools which have "lost the confidence of the middle class people living locally and b. aspirational parents who are less well off."

This presupposes that it is only the views of the "middle class" that matter - if those in the "lower class" (or "plebs" - this being the word which was allegedly used by a public-school educated politician to a policeman charged with protecting his life) still have confidence in the school then their views don't count (presumably they should "know their place" and defer to their "betters").

The same applies to the "aspirational parents who are less well off". There may be some of these who lose confidence in a school (for whatever reason) but it doesn't follow that ALL the "aspirational parents who are less well off" would lose confidence in the same school at the same time.

Confidence is a fragile thing - it doesn't follow that because a school loses the confidence of parents that it is failing (although, of course, this might be the case). And the converse is true - there are some schools alleged to be "failing" (eg Downhills) that still retain the confidence of the majority of parents.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 25/09/2012 - 13:58

A rather silly and cheap shot that I would have thought beneath you, Janet.

Maybe you've forgotten that the need to engage the middle class in the future of state schools has been the left's most persuasive argument against private education?

Or Rebecca's experience that middle-class flight leaves schools struggling to establish a viable top set?

And what about all the OECD stuff you like to quote about the depressing effect of social segregation on attainment?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 25/09/2012 - 17:02

Just to clarify that my direct experience is that the Excellence Cluster interventions I experienced which were specifically designed to ensure that schools which were at risk of becoming sinks schools (due to having challenging catchments) retained high quality top sets were very successful in improving the quality of those schools.

They worked both because the middle classes stayed (because they were happy that the their children would be properly stretched) but also because it meant that there were great top sets there for the children from disadvantaged backgrounds to be in in any subject they were bright at.

Everybody wins. What happens if you open a free school instead Ricky?

1. Massive extra cost
2. Those top sets in the existing school collapse
3. Half full schools

Sarah's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 12:18

Ricky (no reply button)

You say that ‘a free school cannot open unless it has a cohort of children whose parents have been so unhappy with existing provision they’d take the risk of sending their kids to a school with no track record’. This isn’t true. Parents aren’t the only proposers of free schools and the proposers do not have to show that parents are discontented with current provision they merely have to get enough expressions of interests. Most parents if asked whether they’d like a new school will say yes especially if they don’t have to commit themselves to sending their children to it.

I see you accept the point about those campaigning against change. But you make the mistake of assuming that those campaigning are parents. I know from experience of attending public meetings around school closures that quite often those that want to avoid change are often beyond child bearing age with no prospect of directly requiring educational services themselves. It’s ridiculous to call a local authority with a statutory duty to manage the supply of school places high-handed or bureaucratic simply for seeking to ensure secure, sustainable, high quality provision.

Equally it’s ridiculous to call a council ‘spiteful’ for doing as it is legally required to do in achieving the best market value rate for disposing of assets. As it’s the authority that determines where educational need is surely it’s best placed to know whether the site was needed for educational provision.

You characterize my distinction between need and want as a tension between bureaucrats and parents. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s tax revenue that funds school places so we all have an interest in ensuring it’s spent on the areas of public policy where there is greatest need. Local authorities are well placed to know the cost of maintaining very small schools – and the impact on the budgets of all schools when the total pot is reduced. Local authorities have a responsibility to all children across an area – parents tend only to care about their own. It’s simply a difference of focus.

I have visited a lot of schools – some in very disadvantaged areas. I reject labeling them all as sink schools. It’s lazy and doesn’t reflect the diversity of school provision we have. I would accept there are some poor schools – but they may not necessarily be the ones you are referring to! And nothing to suggest that being an Academy does anything to protect a school from being or becoming a poor school.

You suggest that people in urban areas don’t live in local communities – as I’ve said before I think your viewpoint is far too urban-centric. There is life outside the urban centres you know and this policy does nothing to reflect that reality.

If you create a very popular free school the intake will end up coming from a much narrower catchment than 3 miles away if you use geographical distance for your oversubscription criteria. What criteria do you think should be applied – you’ve failed to answer that question consistently which is key to understanding whether free schools are any more able to serve a distadvantaged cohort than any other.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 20:20

WLFS last year used a system whereby 50% of places would be on distance, with the other 50% randomly allocated in bands (e.g. up to 3 miles radius; 3-5 miles radius).

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 21:11

Yawn. WLFS, WLFS, WLFS, WLFS. What's next? Mossbourne?

There are over 24,000 schools in England.
Mossbourne and WLFS therefore account for about 0.004% of schools. And how much of the airtime? And how representative are they?

Yahooo - lets run UK state education by obsessing about 0.004% of the most unrepresentative schools. Where's the vomit bin.

Sarah's picture
Thu, 27/09/2012 - 10:54

There are 79 free schools - you have provided one example. And that's a school that is providing half of its places purely on distance and the other half with some geographical basis (albeit with some random allocation).

That's hardly a scientific analysis of how free school places are being administered or a compelling case that they are going to avoid the sort of postcode effect experienced by every other school which prioritises places based on distance.

Just accept it Ricky - there's absolutely no difference between Academies/Free Schools and maintained schools in this regard. It depends entirely on the nature of the oversubscription criteria adopted and I've yet to see a shred of evidence suggesting that there is a difference between the criteria adopted by maintained schools which are their own admissions authority and academies/free schools.

Therefore the point you made about free schools being an antidote to this effect are entirely unsubstantiated.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 09:58

Therefore the point you made about free schools being an antidote to this effect are entirely unsubstantiated.

No, Sarah. It is just that you misunderstood the thrust of my point. I was not arguing that free schools would be a complete antidote to the post-code effect, though some (like WLFS) may choose to mitigate it to some degree.

The actual thrust of my point was that free schools may offer an antidote to the status quo position many parents from disadvantaged backgrounds now find themselves in. That is, existing school choice is just a Hobson's choice. `they are barred by distance criteria from the good schools in nearby leafy, affluent districts. Their realistic choices are thus confined to the (generally) less good schools in their own (social housing dominated) areas.

Such a family currently feels there is no hope or realitic prospect of finding their child a place at a good school.

Such a family will likely welcome the extension of choice (and the concomitant provision of hope) resulting from a new free school keen to sign them up. If the free school turns out to be good, then they will have achieved what hitherto was not though possible - finding a good school place in an educational wasteland.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 10:00

...sorry my keyboard is sticky today........ They are banned..... realistic...... not thought possible...etc.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 10:51

`they are barred by distance criteria from the good schools in nearby leafy, affluent districts' Their realistic choices are thus confined to the (generally) less good schools in their own (social housing dominated) areas.

Hmmm - yes - I suspected your ideas of what good and bad schools are were this naive.

Do you have any deeper insight than that the schools in challenging areas are the bad schools and the ones in affluent areas are the good schools Ricky?

Sarah's picture
Fri, 28/09/2012 - 18:38

Ricky. I didn't misunderstand the thrust of your argument. I directly challenged what you claimed. You said 'Free schools offer an opportunity for those who cannot afford to buy property close to a good school to find one in another way, thereby escaping enforced segregation'. My argument is that this might be true if the Free School itself was unpopular or for a short time until it become full but that eventually if it became full and/or popular the parent who was unable to move nearer to a 'good' school would be left with essentially the same choice they had before.

And to suggest that some free schools could choose to mitigate the post code effect ignores the fact that maintained schools which are their own admissions authority can (and some do) already do so - and by the same token many free schools may opt not to. So there is nothing intrinsic to a school being a free school that helps to increase the choice of parents from disadvantaged backgrounds.

All that you are essentially arguing is (because you have failed to make any credible distinction between a new free school and any other sort of school) is that having more surplus places gives some parents more choice. This is blindingly obvious. But most people would consider that creating surplus places, which have a direct financial cost, as a means of creating choice is not something that we can afford at the moment.

Surely it makes far greater economic sense to support and improve existing schools.

What you have completely failed to do is to identify what is special about a free school - other than it offering some extra places, that creates something worthwhile that we, as taxpayers, should be prepared to pay for.

Where is your evidence that they will be high quality places, where is your evidence that they are good value for money, where is your evidence that they will be as accessible to the disadvantaged as to the more privileged. The educational and financial case for free schools simply doesn't stack up.

andrew's picture
Fri, 07/12/2012 - 02:31

We have become obsessed with"types" of school free school blimey they don't have banannasin that school open one that does!! My point is that it what is taught & how it is taught that matters. Let me be specific; you have an overarching basic curricula that contains the framework ie a core of basic skills that are generic across all areas of learning.teachers then adapt and use professional judgement to engage the most suitable methods. Units of learning are built up & then shared & developed across the country. We nees schools to feel that they can push on and develop engage new pedagogical practices that meet todays fast moving world. We are all. Caught. In this traditional is best and this hinders the abilty of the conversation to move foward. I think. Personally mr gove is a waste of space-he screams you are either for or against this or that. I find this level of debate depressing. His new curriculum is based on work by (I think) j g hirsch wich has been universally panned by just about every decent academic. He further proves his educational iliteracy by hashing up the secondary curriculum for the sake of a nother set of exams. I would also like to know how he & his policies would fare from inspection by ofstead! He is rushing for the sake of it-it has taken nearly 24 years to sort out the curriculum god knows how long it will take to sort out his crap. His vision is a hellish and worrying-he needs to be stopped and removed before he destroys the heart of learning. I would love to see fully engaged conversation between teachers & government instead there is mistrust & fault on both sides. We need to get beyond this tiring situation for all our childrens sakes.

Lucia H Silvia-Clark's picture
Sat, 09/02/2013 - 11:34

Free schools, private initiatives with the public funding whilst the funding for the established state schools are not getting...This is not right!

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