Faulty facts in free school puff piece

Janet Downs's picture
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Early evidence already suggests free schools are having a significant impact on England’s educational landscape, bringing new and innovative ideas to the state sector.’

Brochure from New Schools Network, updated 13 March 2015.

But how true is that statement? And how reliable are the ‘facts and figures’?

Free schools open and in the pipeline will provide over 230,000 new school places. True, providing all those in the pipeline open. But free schools are not always where required. The National Audit Office (December 2013) found 87% of places in primary free schools were in areas of need but 81% of secondary free school places were not.

17% of free schools open or approved to open are alternative provision or special free schools. This sector is one where free schools have done well. Two of three special free schools inspected so far are Good, one was Outstanding. Two of five alternative provision schools are Good and three Outstanding.

68% of free schools were set up by groups led by teachers. Not quite – as the blurb admits. The ‘teacher led’ groups included other schools, academy chains or ‘education providers’.

24% of free schools are Outstanding compared with 11% of all other state schools inspected at the same time. This isn’t comparing like with like. The ‘other state schools’ would be mainly those inspected proportionately – schools previously requiring improvement or inadequate. A fairer comparison would be with all schools at their last inspection. Ofsted* said free schools ‘inspected to date have a similar profile of inspection judgements to other schools’.

At both primary and secondary level, the opening of a free school has led to gains in performance of the lowest performing schools nearby. The source was the Policy Exchange document that inspired by parody of Imagine. Policy Exchange also found performance in previously high performing schools fell when near a free school. There’s nothing significant in this – it’s known as regression to the mean.

Free schools are ten times more likely to be located in the most deprived local authorities. It doesn’t follow that being in a deprived area means the free school will take the same proportion of children on free school meals as found locally. The West London Primary Free School, for example, has just 6.7% of pupils eligible for free school meals in this academic year – the lowest proportion in Hammersmith and Fulham. Canary Wharf College has the lowest proportion in Tower Hamlets - just 4.4%. The national average is 18%**.

Open free schools received an average of almost three applications for every place. But these might not have been first choice. Placing a school last, for example, is not a positive endorsement.

Ten times more free schools were opened than new academies in the same time frame. Who would have thought it? Tell LAs they can’t set up their own schools. Set up a flagship programme. Throw money at it. It’s hardly surprising academy chains and others set up free schools rather than new academies. But aren’t free schools technically academies in any case?

Free schools are tackling a shortage of good school places. That wasn't the case in Durham where Durham Free School (now closed) was set up despite being near schools judged Good and where there were already empty places. Nor was it the case in Suffolk where Beccles Free School opened near a Good comprehensive. Rather than opening new provision, it would be cheaper to provide help for schools judged less than Good. The National Audit Office (2014) found informal intervention such as support was more effective than formal interventions like academy sponsorship. It follows that the even more expensive option of providing a new school would be less cost-effective than improving an existing one.

Swift and decisive action is taken when free schools fail. This is in contrast to the 100 maintained schools which have been in special measures for more than a year. It’s true some failing free schools have been rapidly closed: Discovery New School and The Durham Free School, for example. But the Department for Education sat on the critical report about Kings Science Academy, the Bradford free school established by Sajid Hussain Raza, one of Michael Gove’s ‘crusaders for social justice’ but now charged with fraud. Action wasn’t particularly ‘swift and decisive’ there – it took a Newsnight threat to expose the report before it was made public. However, closing schools is expensive and disruptive – buildings are wasted; children have to find places elsewhere at short notice. Turning around schools takes time – and two free schools, IES Breckland and the Hawthorne’s Free School, are being allowed this time. They, too, have been in special measures for over a year.

The New Schools Network brochure looks pretty – soft shades of duck egg blue on white background, lots of charts and clip art (but why the picture of dollar bills in the finance section?) However, its misleading figures aren’t quite so appealing.

*quoted p 57 Education Select Committee report into academies and free schools here.

**FSM figures are for pupils who were eligible for free school meals in 2013/14. I have not used the figures for pupils who have been eligible for free school meals any time in the last six years (FSM6) because the free schools have not been open for six years.
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