New research shows that free schools are not recruiting minority and disadvantaged students

Francis Gilbert's picture
 6
On the day that marks the mid-term for the Coalition government, it was instructive to read some research conducted by Findings from Race on the Agenda (ROTA) which shows that free schools are not recruiting students from the most deprived backgrounds. ROTA do not appear to be against the free school policy per se, but are anxious that the programme should make sure that the most deprived students are included within it. The research shows that children from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities (BAME), who are amongst some of the most acutely disadvantaged in education, are "notably lacking" in free schools (for a list of the key findings, read below) This is despite the fact that the Education Secretary has stated that free schools have been set up primarily to close the attainment gap.

I'm reluctant to blame the individual groups who have set up free schools for this lack of BAME representation -- some, but not all, have the best of intentions -- it is more that the policy itself is so flawed. Michael Gove is the darling of the Conservative Party because he has very cleverly smuggled in a policy that assists the wealthier parents -- many of whom are Conservative voters -- in the land under the guise that the policy is rescuing poor students from terrible state schools. He steals the rhetoric of a socialist -- speaking of wanting greater equality etc -- while delivering a policy which is classically Conservative; transferring power from local democratic structures to private companies and wealthy, Tory-voting individuals and groups. This is reflected by the fact that many of these free schools are full of wealthier students and the flagship free school is run by Toby Young, who rarely misses an opportunity these days to say he is a Tory. This is what happens when taxpayers' money is shifted away from communities and into the hands of private companies and individuals.

Why is the mainstream media not highlighting this? Why is it, despite all the manifest cock-ups and failings emanating from the Department of Education, that it is perceived as one of the Coalition's most successful departments -- as Patrick Wintour writes in The Guardian today? I'm a bit mystified to be honest.

These are the key findings of the report (pp 5-6), which are particularly damning of the policy but possibly not surprising to anyone following the LSN on these issues:

1. There is a lack of engagement with BAME communities in the free schools programme: BAME communities, in particular those that have been acutely disadvantaged in education, such as African Caribbean, Pakistani, Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller communities, are underrepresented as leaders within successful free school projects. Some such communities, like the African Caribbean community, are attempting to seize the free schools programme as an opportunity to improve educational outcomes for BAME and other children and young people, but face barriers to success. Other such communities are largely unaware of the free schools programme. The Department for Education does not appear to have given much attention to the engagement of such underrepresented communities.

2. There is a lack of transparency around the free schools programme: The Department for Education is limiting the information in the public domain about free schools. The public information provided by free schools themselves in relation to equality and inclusion is also often limited. This obscures the degree to which free schools are benefitting BAME communities. Additionally this lack of information reduces accountability.
3. The impact of free schools on BAME communities has been insufficiently evaluated: There has been limited commentary and research on the impact of free schools on BAME communities. That which exists points to concerns about the lack of engagement of BAME communities in the free schools programme, risks of further ethnic segregation within school systems, and greater inequality in free schools than in state maintained schools. Concerns highlighted within existing commentary and research should be taken seriously with measures put in place to monitor and overcome them.

4. There are risks that free schools’ choice of premises will detrimentally impact on BAME and socio-economically disadvantaged communities: While this research did not explore premises issues in depth, a number of instances were identified where free schools’ choice of community premises has had detrimental impacts on BAME and disadvantaged communities. There is a need for further work to explore if such impacts are widespread and systemic.

5. Equality, diversity and human rights are insufficiently considered in the development of free schools’ services: While the majority of the free schools surveyed made general statements of commitment to equality, diversity, human rights and/or related concepts, most did not provide evidence of proactive and strategic approaches to ensuring equality in practice. This may indicate the need for further support to enable free schools to develop policies and procedures that meet their commitments to equality, diversity, human rights and duties under the Equality Act 2010.

6. Over-emphasis on traditional curriculum approaches among many approved free schools risks limiting pupil diversity: There was a strong focus on ‘traditional’ subjects, such as Latin and Classics, among many of the first 40 approved free schools. When taken together with other factors such as limited strategic consideration of equality within this cohort of free schools, there are risks of social, cultural and ethnic segregation being exacerbated within education. There is a need to further explore the impact of curricula within free schools on educational segregation as growing numbers of free schools open their doors.

7. There are risks that admissions policies in use by free schools could lead to indirect discrimination: The admissions policies of the first 40 approved free schools were examined in July 2011. While limited information on admissions policies and/or catchment areas made it difficult to draw concrete conclusions, a number of free schools were proposing to use admissions policies that have the potential to indirectly discriminate against BAME and socio-economically disadvantaged communities. Further research is required to ascertain if this issue is systemic and widespread within the free schools programme.

8. Many free schools being established with the aim of improving education in deprived urban areas are not fully benefiting socio-economically disadvantaged communities, among which BAME communities are overrepresented: A significant portion of free schools opening in deprived urban areas are not enrolling pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds at the same rate as other local schools.

9. BAME communities face particular barriers in leading and engaging in successful free school projects: Barriers linked to financial expertise, financial resources and social capital, along with inconsistencies in the free schools application process, affect BAME communities disproportionately in their efforts to establish free schools and have important equalities implications.
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Comments

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 07/11/2012 - 15:46

Thanks for publicising this report, Francis. Many of the problems identified in the report have been discussed on this site including some free schools setting their catchment areas to include more leafy suburbs than disadvantaged areas (eg Bristol Free School), drawing up admission criteria which gave priority to pupils from fee-paying schools (Maharishi Free School, Langley Hall Primary Academy - the Schools Adjudicator has ruled that this criteria does not adhere to the Schools Admission Code), offering a narrow curriculum (eg free schools at Beccles and Saxmundham both made it clear on their consultations that they would not offer vocational courses); offering a curriculum which would discourage low attaining pupils (eg WLFS), and opening in areas with surplus places which will threaten the ability of all local secondary schools to offer a wide choice of options (eg Beccles).

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 07/11/2012 - 19:05

Except that WLFS got about a third to a quarter of its pupils in the first cohort from black, Asian or minority ethnicity. I think that is probably on or over the borough average.

Does this mean LSN will be assisting a West Indian ex teacher from Lambeth who wants to open a school in Brent (over 50% non white ethnicity)? She did try in South London but was opposed politically and I think fair to say by contributors to this site.

You can't oppose the people trying to change the things you don't like and then act surprised when change doesn't occur.

Tubby Isaacs's picture
Wed, 07/11/2012 - 23:50

"Does this mean LSN will be assisting a West Indian ex teacher from Lambeth who wants to open a school in Brent (over 50% non white ethnicity)? She did try in South London but was opposed politically and I think fair to say by contributors to this site."

It took me a while to realise you mean Katherine Birbalsingh. Why do you assume her school would have had more ethnic minority students in it than other local schools? Wasn't the point that they responded to local demand? What evidence is there of any in either Brent or Lambeth? Isn't she just someone with a media profile trawling around trying to set up a project?

Melissa Benn's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 10:44

"I’m reluctant to blame the individual groups who have set up free schools for this lack of BAME representation — some, but not all, have the best of intentions — it is more that the policy itself is so flawed. Michael Gove is the darling of the Conservative Party because he has very cleverly smuggled in a policy that assists the wealthier parents — many of whom are Conservative voters — in the land under the guise that the policy is rescuing poor students from terrible state schools. He steals the rhetoric of a socialist — speaking of wanting greater equality etc — while delivering a policy which is classically Conservative; transferring power from local democratic structures to private companies and wealthy, Tory-voting individuals and groups."

Francis, I think this is the clearest, fairest, and most elegant statement re the fundamental problem that free schools pose to the comprehensive education they claim to be enhancing. I shall be quoting you on this many times in the near future.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 13:18

Francis

I'm puzzled by some aspects of this research. You headline your story "New research shows that free schools are not recruiting minority and disadvantaged students", but the research doesn't actually show that. The researchers admit they have no idea of the actual proportion of BAME pupils in free schools.

Much of the rest of their research is contradictory. They make a meal of DfE's supposed failure to engage BAME communities in the process, but then their own survey of free school proposers shows that:

16.8% of free school proposers were Black. ....14.4% of free school proposers represented by our survey respondents were Asian.

Those figures are much higher than the proportion of Blacks and Asians in the general population.

Clearly the researchers are piqued by DfE's refusal of their requests for data. Sadly, their response is lazy speculation.

For instance, they make the assumption that BAME children will be put off by an academic curriculum. Frankly, that's a racist assumption in itself. Tell that to Barack Obama and Henry Louis Gates. It has also already been disproved by WLFS.

And the standards of methodological integrity on display here are pretty low. The only concrete example they give of a school in a deprived area failing to recruit FSM students is St Luke's Primary in Camden. What the researchers do not tell us is that the school had (at the time of the survey) only 15 pupils or that it was a tiny CofE primary housed in a church hall. No respectable researcher would count that as statistically significant or evidentially valid.

Francis, you use the phrase 'notably lacking' - and put it in quotes to suggest it is part of the report. But my word search of that phrase in the actual report couldn't find it anywhere in the text. Where did you get it?

Barbara Nea's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 21:42

Dear all,

Thank you for your comments on our research, which we read with interest.

In response to Ricky’s comments for now; so that they don’t mislead this interesting discussion.

Ricky says “Much of the rest of their research is contradictory. They make a meal of DfE’s supposed failure to engage BAME communities in the process, but then their own survey of free school proposers shows that: 16.8% of free school proposers were Black. ….14.4% of free school proposers represented by our survey respondents were Asian.”

The research does not, as suggested, say that 16.8% of proposers were Black. It says that 16.8% of proposers, who responded to our survey, were Black. In relation to this figure our report goes on to explain:

“It would be misleading to compare our sample to the ethnic demography of the English population overall and conclude that BAME groups are more involved in free school projects. It is likely this diversity (ethnic diversity within our sample) is because this survey was publicised via ROTA’s networks and the importance of this sample is in what it tells us about how success rates vary between different ethnic groups and about barriers which disproportionately impact on certain ethnic groups.”

The report then goes on to include figures to show the variation in success rates across different ethnic groups, and links this to the point that BAME communities are under-engaged in successful free school projects.

I hope this clarifies the point of concern raised by Ricky.


Ricky says “Clearly the researchers are piqued by DfE’s refusal of their requests for data.”

As suggested, we were very concerned by DfE’s refusal of our requests for data. Many others have shared our concerns. Since our research the Information Commissioner has ordered the DfE to publish the information we requested so that the free schools programme could be properly scrutinised for its impact on educational equality. The Department is appealing this order.


Ricky says: “Sadly, their response is lazy speculation.”

We are very clear in our report that our sample size is small but significant and that more comprehensive research is urgently needed to determine if the trends of inequality and exclusion we noted are happening on a systemic and widespread basis within the free schools programme. Given the lengths the DfE is taking to limit the information available in the public domain, it would be impossible for anyone to go beyond speculation and to properly scrutinize the programme (Ricky, you may have noticed in the methodology section the painstaking process we went through in order to produce a list of successful and unsuccessful free school projects.To date, the list we produced is the most comprehensive list that exists outside the DfE).

Ricky says: “For instance, they make the assumption that BAME children will be put off by an academic curriculum.”

No such assumption is made.


Ricky says: “And the standards of methodological integrity on display here are pretty low. The only concrete example they give of a school in a deprived area failing to recruit FSM students is St Luke’s Primary in Camden.”

This statement is not true. Several concrete examples are provided of free schools in deprived areas failing to recruit pupils that are eligible for Free School Meals. These examples are given alongside a reference to a source of data which shows that three-quarters of open free schools have admitted a lower proportion of disadvantaged pupils than is average for their wider neighbourhoods.

Barbara Nea
Senior Policy Officer
Barbara@rota.org.uk
Race on the Agenda

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