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A third of free schools inspected by Ofsted “require improvement”

Free schools were supposed to be the shock troops that would smash complacency and set such a high example that they would raise standards in other schools. According to the Prime Minister,

“Free schools don’t just give parents who are frustrated with their local schools a new chance of a better education. They also encourage existing schools in the area to compete and raise their game.” (Speech, September 2011).

“Already free schools – fully independent schools within the state sector, launched by this Government, funded by taxpayers and set up by parents and teachers, charities and entrepreneurs – are revolutionising education…I know free schools work. I have seen for myself – and what’s happening is fantastic…I want them to be the shock troops of innovation in our education system. They are going to smash through complacency…” (Telegraph, November 2011)

But the Independent reports that Ofsted has found three of the nine free schools inspected so far “require improvement”. Two of these were existing schools: Batley Grammar School, an independent school where one parent said it was like “winning the lottery” when he discovered he no longer had to pay fees, and Sandbach School in Cheshire. The third was King’s Science Academy in Bradford which David Cameron described as “innovative and inspiring” during a by-election campaign visit. Michael Gove described the head as “outstanding”. But Ofsted found the academy “requires improvement” on all four counts including leadership.

On 13 July 2012, the DfE said:

“Free schools are driving up standards across the country. Now more and more groups are taking advantage of the freedoms we’ve offered to create wonderful new schools”

But the press release was updated ten days ago. Is the DfE trying to rewrite history? Did the original press pour effusive praise over any of the above three schools? If so, has the school been removed to avoid embarrassment?

It’s already been shown that academy conversion is not a sure-fire way to improvement. Now it appears that the much-vaunted free schools aren’t either.


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Comments, replies and queries

  1. As noted in, the lesson for free school proposers “appears to be straight forward, make extravagant claims about your proposed school and trust that enough people will believe them.”

  2. Brian says:

    ‘They are run by teachers – not town hall or government bureaucrats …’

    From the DfE release above. Does anyone know of a document where the DfE outlines what it means by run by town hall bureaucrats? No control over curriculum, no control over appointment of staff, no control over how a school budget is spent, no control over teaching methods … I could go on. Maybe the DfE really just meant to say ‘government bureaucrats’. Fair enough … I wonder if Mr. Gove reads his own department’s press releases.’

    • Brian – remarks from the DfE, Gove et al about schools being “controlled” by Local Authorities or “run by town hall bureaucrats” are propaganda. Schools haven’t been “controlled” by LAs since Local Management of Schools was introduced a quarter of a century ago. But it suits the Government to cry “freedom”.

      But the extra “freedoms” are limited. The Academies Commission found that non-academies can already do most things academies can do (see faq above about the Academies Commission findings).

      Gove knows that. So does his moutpiece schools minister Elizabeth Truss who was still going on about OECD findings about autonomy (see faq above re schools and autonomy) in last week’s debate about enforced academisation. But she didn’t say that the UK already delegated more autonomy to schools than other countries. Neither did she mention the Academies Commission findings noted above.

      • Suffolker says:

        I also think that a lot of LA “control” disappeared when school budgets were ring-fenced e.g. DSG, and the LAs couldn’t fiddle with the funds as they had done before.

        • Actually the LEA’s do not “fiddle” with funds now; it is the Schools Forums which do that. Admittedly, although required by law, Schools Forums, their role and composition are not well known about. I am a member of Islington Schools’ Forum which consists of a number of Heads elected by and from the Heads of Islington Schools, and a number of Governors elected from and by school governors. Which is how I got on, and yes, my election was contested and there was a secret ballot.

          (To keep it a manageable size not every school is represented so we do have to look at the common interest and not just push our own school. Academies, and no doubt, in due course, Free Schools, are also represented, as we do make some financial decisions that affect them.)

          So LEA’s have even less power than you might think. In fact as they are unable to make any decisions that affect Academies or Free Schools, but the Forum does, it is really the Forums that matter.

  3. Roger Titcombe says:

    Janet – And that’s if you trust OfSTED to be even handed. In the early years of academies OfSTED had a special dedicated team that inspected academies because of their ‘special features’.

  4. Leonard James says:

    A few things;

    1. Wasn’t the LSN questioning the credibility of an Ofsted report during the Downhills fiasco? You can’t have it both ways by cherry picking the Ofsted reports that suit you.

    2. Have you read the Ofsted report on King’s Science college in Bradford? You really should because some of the criticism is simply absurd – particularly in the behaviour section.

    3. The King’s Ofsted report really ought to end the ridiculous argument (that I only hear from certain regulars on LSN) that Ofsted are trying to force traditional teaching methods on schools.

    • Roger Titcombe says:

      Leonard – LSN is a forum. It doesn’t have a collective policy. Who is the ‘you’ to whom you are putting your question? The opposition to Gove that finds expression on LSN is very diverse. Could you possibly be ’tilting at windmills’?

      I agree that OfSTED reports should not be cherry picked. I have no faith whatever in OfSTED judgements (despite my headship school always getting good ones in my time). The problem is that although OfSTED was set up to be independent of government and answerable only directly to parliament, it has always appeared to act as if it is an agency of the Education Ministry in all its forms since OfSTED’s creation.

      I carried out extensive research of the links between the Academies Division of DfES and OfSTED at the time the first academies were being created.

      I have a copy of a November 2004 document entitled ‘DfES Academies Division/OfSTED Protocol for Working with Academies. This is a quote from it.

      “Because academies are not yet numerous, it would be difficult, under the current inspection arrangements, for registered inspectors to gain experience of visiting them. HMI who undertake the visits will have a good understanding of academies. The inspection of all academies by HMI will help to ensure that a consistent approach is adopted, and this will be reinforced by the involvement of some HMI in the inspections of several academies.”

      It should be noted that at that time schools were not normally inspected by HMI but by large ‘Inspection Teams’ chosen by tender, many of whom were created by LAs and private businesses set up for the purpose. This protocol shows the degree of co-operation between Blair’s Labour government at the time and OfSTED with regard to the inspection of the new academies. Such inspections were not just exclusive to HMI but a special team of HMI chosen for the purpose, whose HMI leader met regularly with the Academies Division of DFES.

      The obvious question is why it should be necessary for the Lead Inspector to be familiar with any school that he/she inspects. Surely inspections should be objective. We still have the same problem with religious schools, which have their own dedicated inspection teams.

      Unless things have changed since 2004 and OfSTED has evolved into a robust organisation that is truly independent of the DfE, it could be expected that the approach to the inspection of Free Schools might be modelled on the 2004 Protocol for the inspection of the new academies. If this is the case then negative judgements of Free Schools really are worthy of scrutiny.

      Did I read recently that OfSTED inspectors are now advising schools how to pass inspections in return for a fee? Weren’t GCSE examiners caught doing this by the Daily Telegraph? Can this be true? If so is it ethical?

      I suspect pre-OfSTED HMI will be turning in their graves.

      • Leonard James says:

        I’m not convinced the founding members would agree with your comments about a lack of collective policy but I’ll leave further clarification to them. For now I’m happy to assume that ‘you’ can stand for Janet who not that long ago had a different opinion about Ofsted:

        “The DfE made much of the 2012 Ofsted report which said the school was failing. But this judgement is dubious – the Ofsted team was led by the same lead inspector who found the school was improving barely a term before.”

        The entire article can be found here:

        The rest of your argument is.addressing a strawman. If you disagree with me perhaps you’d care to provide some evidence proving that Ofsted are forcing traditionalist teaching methods on schools.

        • Leonard – your question is fair. How can I on the one hand criticise Ofsted for its judgements while at the same time quote Ofsted judgements re free schools?

          I have, as you say, been very critical of Ofsted. I even asked if it was time to call time on Ofsted in July:

          So, how to square this seeming hypocrisy? First, I don’t have much faith in Ofsted judgements especially since the goal posts have been moved and the new measure of “requires improvement” has been applied retrospectively to any school judged “satisfactory” at its last inspection.

          But the Government does trust Ofsted. That being the case, the Government must accept Ofsted’s judgement for its much-vaunted free schools which were marketed as being the saviours of the English education system (see Cameron quotes above).

          • Leonard James says:

            “But the Government does trust Ofsted. That being the case, the Government must accept Ofsted’s judgement for its much-vaunted free schools which were marketed as being the saviours of the English education system (see Cameron quotes above).”

            This is a very good point.

        • There’s an interesting opposing judgement on the King’s Science Academy website. This is from Challenge Partners:

          King’s Science Academy Principal told a local paper he gives more credence to the National Leaders of Education Challenge Report than to Ofsted. He also said that Ofsted based its judgement on a visit by “an Ofsted inspector who came for little more than a day’s visit”. The Ofsted report says there were three HMIs.

    • “the ridiculous argument (that I only hear from certain regulars on LSN) that Ofsted are trying to force traditional teaching methods on schools.”

      Would that be the argument that the process of grading the quality of the provision of services leads to the suffocation of innovation and healthy diversity as well as to regulators failing to fulfill their duty to report to the government accurately on the sector of society they regulate Leonard?

      In which case I suggest you take your complaints about that to Sir Philip Hampton.

      • Leonard James says:

        No Rebecca it would be the argument (that I only hear from certain regulars on LSN) that Ofsted are trying to force traditional teaching methods on schools.

    • Leonard – presuming the Ofsted inspectors at King’s Science Academy were competent (they were all HMI’s not Additional Inspectors):

      1 They criticised the building. This raises a question about the wisdom of opening schools speedily in unsuitable accommodation.
      2 They criticised the curriculum. The lack of suitable accommodation impacted on the curriculum: no practical work in science, no teaching of Design/Technology and irregular teaching of art/design, music and performing arts.

      Now, the the quality of accommodation can be verified irrespective of the competence of the inspectors.

      However, I share your qualms about the judging of behaviour “requires improvement” seems too harsh. However, the Inspectors criticised the number of fixed-term exclusions and recommended that “internal” exclusions should be used before resorting to the former. This seems fair comment and was probably why the Inspectors didn’t give behaviour a higher rating.

      But there’s the rub. In the old inspecting regime, the Inspectors could have judged behaviour as “satisfactory”. But there is no such category between “good” and “requires improvement”. But reading the report (presuming it’s accurate), I would have judged the behaviour as “satisfactory”.

      • Leonard – update. I’ve re-read the report and the Inspectors were referring to the NEW building. I’d assumed they were referring to the temporary accommodation. It seems incredible that a new build should not have all of its facilities available when the pupils moved in. Here’s the section in full:

        “Since the academy opened, the various changes and challenges cannot be underestimated. Moving to a new site, not having the use of the whole building means that it is not possible to undertake practical work in science at present. Design and technology is not taught because of accommodation restrictions. Creative subjects, art and design, music and performing arts are not taught regularly so the curriculum is very narrow and focuses mainly on English, mathematics and science.”

  5. Rosie Fergusson says:

    Batley Grammar schools Ks2 and KS4 results are poor …but one should note that these cohorts will be from the pupils previously at the school when it was private.

    It would seem that the parents who benefited from the ending of fees in 2010 should also be grateful that the school, moving into the state sector , now comes under a robust inspection regime .

    Doesn’t say much about private schools does it ????

    • Rosie – you make a good point about the inspection of private schools. About half of independent schools (those not allied to organisations like the HMC) are inspected by Ofsted. Many of the rest are inspected by the ISI – Independent Schools Inspectorate. Some independent faith schools are inspected by faith-based inspecting agencies.

      All use different criteria – this is unacceptable. Although I’m dubious about Ofsted, all schools, state or private, should be inspected to the same standard.

      Back to BGS – according to the local paper an ISI inspection in 2004 found “many strengths and few weaknesses” in the school:

      The full report seems to be unavailable at ISI – a search for independent schools within 20 miles of BGS postcode found no mention:

      According to a DfE promotional video about “The benefits of setting up a Free School”, the head of Batley Grammar School was also an inspector for the Independent Schools Inspectorate. The head wanted Batley Grammar School to become a free school “to meet local demand and benefit the community as a whole.” Ofsted said the number of pupils in the school rose when it became a free school but according to Edubase it still has vacancies.

      The DfE also cited BGS as an example of how free schools were using their freedom to employ unqualified teachers to justify allowing academies to do the same:

  6. I do not think that, statistically speaking, three out of nine is significant. The sample size is too small.

    • FJMurphy – there are only 24 first-wave free schools. Inspecting 9 out of the 24 means Ofsted inspected between a quarter and a half of these schools (3/8).

      • Thank you for pointing out that 3/8 is between a quarter and a half.

        • FJM – I’ve just bought “Statistics for Dummies”. Haven’t opened it yet (stiff drink required) but the blurb says I will learn to “grasp statistical ideas… critique and analyze data” and (gulp) “determine probability and work with confidence intervals”.

          Perhaps when I’ve ploughed through the book I’ll be able to say whether a sample comprising between a quarter and a half of any group is statistically significant or not. Or, when faced with a fraction of 3/8, whether it’s misleading to round up to a half or down to a quarter OR to whether it’s pedantic to point out that 3/8 is between a quarter and a half. I suspect the latter.

          • Lol! As far as I recall from some study of statistics, absolute sample size is more important than the sample size as a fraction of the total population, but, given that the total population is 24 schools, a statistician might decide to look at the whole lot. What I am more certain about is that statistics books are tedious, so find something more interesting to read. Have you read ‘Wild Swans’? It is an excellent book.

          • Leonard James says:

            FJM is right it is sample size that is important here. Nine is too small a sample for most methods of statistical analysis.

  7. rosie fergusson says:

    Hi Janet . Re the quote. ‘The head wanted Batley Grammar School to become a free school “to meet local demand and benefit the community as a whole.’.

    well she would say that wouldn’t she? After all what self-respecting head is going to admit that their private school isn’t financially viable because the fee paying clients are checking exam results and voting with their feet? Bradford Girl’s Grammar has used exactly the same ‘we must gift ourselves to the community narcissism’. Who would have expected the free school programme to deliver a deficient school into the state system. Thank gawd for Ofsted!!!!!!

  8. Leonard – reply to your post above re sample size (no reply button). Nine is indeed a small sample – any small fluctuation has a disproportionate effect. However, the Government thinks a cohort size of 6 is a large enough figure for inclusion in the Key Stage 2 Sats league tables.

    It used to be 10 but the present Government reduced it to 6. So any school where the
    Year 6 cohort has just 6 pupils can appear in league tables and be judged on its outcome.

    So, if the Government thinks that a meaningful conclusion about a school can be based on 6, then surely the same logic can be applied to a sample of 9?

    • Adrian Elliott says:

      Absolutely, Janet.

      People really can’t have it both ways. A school with which I am connected. had 7 children doing SATs last year. Two failed to achieve level 4, as a result of which the school was placed in the bottom quintile in the new Ofsted school dashboard (which is of course available to the public). In some previous years,unsurprisingly, the school would have been in the highest quintile with 100%.

      The school was only inspected this year,under the new framework and found to be good with several outstanding features.

      The head is still concerned about the damage this latest. piece of misleading information might do to the school.

      Of course, the sample size of free schools inspected so far is too small to be statistically significant. But as you point out , these reports have to be set against the background of constant denigration of maintained schools by the media, politicians and their aides (some on this site) and the over-hyping of free schools and academies as the magic solution which will instantly transform – indeed already is transforming state education.

      • Adrian – here’s an example of the rhetoric surrounding free schools from a free school website:

        “Free schools are a breath of fresh air for Bradford, if you feel your child has been let down for far too long. Free Schools will raise aspirations of our young children, provide real opportunities to raise standards and bring about a revolution in our communities that have for to (sic) long educationally underachieved.”

    • Leonard James says:

      Oh so everyone else is doing it so why can’t we! We should be campaigning against the misuse of data not emulating it in this way. The best posts on LSN (Henry Stewart) attempt to move beyond the superficial nature of government rhetoric and statistics.

      • Leonard – of course it’s Government rhetoric. That was the point in highlighting it. It does not follow that in drawing attention to such propaganda that one is emulating it.

        The Government shot itself in the foot by saying in advance that free schools would offer an outstanding education which would raise standards across the board. It was obvious that not all of them would do so. It was actually an intolerable burden the Government placed on them.

        But no doubt the Government rhetoric will continue just as it does with academies. And why the rewriting of DfE press releases to excise any mention of Kings Science Academy? This seems a particularly small-minded and unethical action.

        • Leonard James says:

          You are going beyond drawing attention to the governments methods by choosing to use them yourself. Your indictment of free schools hinges on the same methods of data analysis and the same method of inspecting school quality that you criticise the government for using elsewhere. By your own standards one of your argument about Downhills or your argument against free schools is invalid – which one is it?

          • Leonard – let’s make it clear. I am suspicious of Ofsted decisions (especially the rapid about-turn re Downhills). But the Government accepted Ofsted’s (second) judgement re Downhills just as it is accepting the Ofsted judgement about Roke primary which has never been underperforming. If it holds Ofsted in such high esteem then it must accept Ofsted’s decision about it much-praised free schools.

            I have not made an indictment of the free schools. All I have said is that Ofsted has found three of the nine free schools inspected to require improvement. Perhaps you can tell me where the evidence is that contradicts that fact.

            I actually think that Ofsted has been unfair to Kings Science Academy. I think the DfE’s attempts to erase any mention of Kings Science Academy in their press releases is mean and cowardly.

            BUT: the Government said free schools would be the “shock troops” that would save English education. Cameron said free schools “work” and were “fantastic”. It was a rash and foolish thing to say. Unfortunately, this propaganda was taken up by many of the free schools themselves at their proposal stage – they would provide “outstanding” education which would be better than other schools which had “failed”.

            I think it’s called hubris.

  9. Sample size in the case of free schools is irrelevant. These schools were promoted as “flagship” schools which would “smash complacency”, raise standards across the board blah blah. In retrospect this was unwise but Government rhetoric (of whatever colour) isn’t always known for wisdom.

    The New Schools Network and sections of the media ran with the free schools are fabulous mantra. One example is the Telegraphy hype about Kings Science Academy from 2011 which said that “Kings, and a dozen or so other new ‘free schools’ also opening this month, will in addition transform the nation’s education system.”

    This was an over-optimistic presumption which actually puts an intolerable burden on free schools (they ALL must be at least “good”). But neither they nor the Government toned down the rhetoric. The majority of free schools pushed themselves forward as offering a higher standard of education than was offered locally. A couple even described themselves as “outstanding”.

    And 3 of the first-wave free school foundations were censured by Advertising Standards for misleading marketing:

    • Leonard James says:

      I think it is disappointing that you are dismissing the limitations of your argument (weak statistics and an unreliable method of measuring quality – Ofsted).

      • Leonard – as Adrian says above, the Government can’t have it both ways. It says a cohort of 5 in Year 6 is a large enough group on which to judge a school’s results. It The implication of this is that a group comprising 9 first-wave free schools is equally large enough.

        I accept that nine is too small (as 5 is in primary schools). As I said above, any small fluctuation has an inordinate effect. BUT, I repeat, the Government thinks 5 is a large enough sample on which to make a judgement.

        I also accept that Ofsted reports are inconsistent and, therefore, unreliable. BUT, again, the Government accepts Ofsted as infallible when it comes to forcing academy conversion. Again, it can’t have it both ways and ignore “requires improvement” judgements for its “flagship” free schools.

        That said, if Ofsted had retained the “satisfactory” (meaning “satisfying the criteria). I think that Kings Science Academy would not have been judged as requiring improvement. The Academy appears to be doing a satisfactory job in difficult circumstances. And unlike the other free schools that were inspected, it does what the Government said free schools would do – particularly attract disadvantaged pupils.

        • Leonard – sorry, the above post should read “…cohort of 6″ not “…cohort of 5″, and “the Government thinks 6 is a large enough sample on which to make a judgement.”


          • Leonard James says:

            You do realise that by running the article you did about Downhills and then this article about free schools you are, by your own standards, ‘trying to have it both ways’. You really need to address this issue Janet because your complaints are really lacking credibility here.

  10. Leonard James says:


    “Leonard – let’s make it clear. I am suspicious of Ofsted decisions (especially the rapid about-turn re Downhills).”

    Then you should be urging the government to ignore their findings instead of demanding action – isn’t this what you were doing with Downhills?

    “But the Government accepted Ofsted’s (second) judgement re Downhills”

    And you clearly think Ofsted are unreliable. The frustration is that you are actively saying that the government should do the wrong thing here because you happen to disagree with the schools in question – I bet if these schools were a type of school you approve of you would be demanding that the government ignore Ofsted.

    “I have not made an indictment of the free schools. All I have said is that Ofsted has found three of the nine free schools inspected to require improvement. Perhaps you can tell me where the evidence is that contradicts that fact.”

    The context is key here. You’ve published an article with a headline that is uncritical (about Ofsted) and negative (about free schools) on a website that frequently publishes articles that question the reliability of Ofsted and the usefulness of free schools.

    “I actually think that Ofsted has been unfair to Kings Science Academy. I think the DfE’s attempts to erase any mention of Kings Science Academy in their press releases is mean and cowardly.”

    A fact you neglected to mention in the original article along with any opposing commentary on the matter. You are only backtracking now because you’ve been called out on what is, frankly, a pretty mean article.

    “BUT: the Government said free schools would be the “shock troops” that would save English education. Cameron said free schools “work” and were “fantastic”. It was a rash and foolish thing to say.”

    Do you have evidence (that you consider to be reliable) that suggests they are not fantastic?

    Unfortunately, this propaganda was taken up by many of the free schools themselves at their proposal stage – they would provide “outstanding” education which would be better than other schools which had “failed”.

    Oh come now almost every school shines shit like this nowadays.

    • “Oh come now almost every school shines shit like this nowadays.” My school does not, nor do I know of any in Islington that do. Actually I take exception to your remark Mr. James.

      • Leonard James says:

        Perhaps you missed the part where I said ‘almost’ every school. It is also worth mentioning that I don’t think schools have much choice in the matter – we all have to market ourselves to the customers now don’t we?

        That said I’ll be interested to see how you go about explaining this to prospective parents;

  11. Mr James what exactly are you insinuating?

    • Leonard James says:

      I’m not sure what you mean.

      In your school’s case I’m not insinuating anything. I’m simply interested in how your organisation, which according to you is above putting a positive spin on it’s own performance, will present below average performance data to prospective parents.

      Generally speaking I think I’m insinuating that years of compliance data, league tables and the public humiliation that goes with it has led to some schools getting a bit competitive with each other.

      On a personal note, I’m insinuating that you failed to grasp what I initially said. Now perhaps you disagree with me but I don’t think your defense of your organisation or indeed all of the Islington schools is really disproving what I said.

  12. Miss Khan says:

    After the Ofsted report for Kings Science Academy, I can now confidently say that they are a complete joke in regards to determining how well a school is performing. As someone who has studied in a local Primary school and a local secondary school in Bradford, and with a family who have all studied in local schools, with a brother who has recently just left Grange technology College, I have a fairly good experience of state schools in the local area. Grange was deemed as ‘outstanding’ by OFSTED when the fact of the matter is that it has a 39% pass rate for GCSE’s. The majority of students have read perhaps one book a year, if that. The behavior of students, especially the boys is atrocious. My own brother readily admits that for most of the year, the science teacher was unable to teach the lessons due to the behavior of students. Being able to study single science’s is not even option. The vocabulary of students is severely limited and this is in fact common to most schools across Bradford. It is an absolute disgrace, that a free secondary school which offers children with opportunities as simple as being able to take three single science GCSE’s rather than having BTEC’s shoved down their throats has received such a poor report. Evidently, the Ofsted inspector(s) was a complete moron, unable to understand the schools outstanding and innovative ideas to help students achieve a high level of academic achievement. I can genuinely say that I am shocked at a the level of progress of a family friends daughter. Her English speaking skills are outstanding- her fluency in Spanish is just mind-blowing. Students can not leave the school premises if they have not completed their homework and have teachers in every subject at their disposal. Please tell me one free school in Bradford which has this level of dedication. Again, Ofsted are a joke. My brother has been accepted for 2013 entry, and we are delighted and hope the school continues to excel in all fields. The dedication of the principal is unmatched to that of anyone in Bradford.

  13. […] school is not alone; a third of Free Schools assessed by Ofsted have been found to ‘require improvement’ (fail to reach the grade of ‘Good’).  Therefore these schools perform no better, and in fact […]

  14. […] the DfE’s nonsensical claims about the success of sponsor academies (also reported here), it has fallen into the same trap as the DfE this time by jumping on the first statistic that suited its political motives. At this […]

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A third of free schools inspected by Ofsted “require improvement”

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