Free school headlines – stuffed full of selected stats (Part 2)

Janet Downs's picture

The ‘headlines’ in the New School Network publication The Case for Free Schools are puff statements.  In particular, the data is dragooned to disparage ‘council run’ schools.

Yesterday I challenged the first two headlines.  Today I’m dealing with the second two.  They are given below in italics.

On progress and attainment, free school (sic) are above average.

Only 32 secondary free schools entered pupils for GCSE in 2016.  NFER found the ‘average attainment 8 score per pupil in free schools was slightly lower (-2 per cent) than in converter academies (1322 schools) and slightly higher (+1 per cent) than in local authority schools (1120 schools)’.  In other words, secondary free schools performed at about the same level as other schools.  

Free schools help the most disadvantaged. There are three times as many free schools in England’s most deprived areas as there are in the least deprived. Secondary free schools educate an above average number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (FSM6).

Free schools in deprived areas don’t necessarily take a large proportion of children eligible for free school meals.  This appears to be particularly true at primary level.

  • Canary Wharf College, for example, is in Tower Hamlets, one of London’s poorest areas.  But the number of pupils eligible for free school meals at any time in the last six years (FSM6) was just 6.3% in 2016 against a national primary FSM6 average of 25.4%.  
  • While West London Free School, the secondary free school set up by Toby Young, (now NSN’s director), had 38.5% FSM6 pupils in 2016, West London Free School Primary had 7.8%.   
  • Just 2.9% of pupils at Etz Chaim Jewish Primary School in Barnet were eligible for free school meals any time in the last six years. 
  • At Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham Temple Grove, a primary free school in Lewisham, Ofsted (September 2015) said pupils eligible for the pupil premium were ‘less than a third of the national average’.

It would be unreliable to base conclusions about free school eligibility in free schools on just a few schools.  But in late 2016, a House of Commons Briefing Paper* said pupils claiming free school meals in January 2016 (FSM1) was ‘below average at primary free schools (13.6% v 15.2%), but above average at secondary free schools (15.0% v 14.1%)’. 

The pattern for primary schools continued into January 2017

The usual caveat applies: free school statistics should be used with caution because of the small numbers involved.  It’s a pity this warning isn’t heeded by either the NSN or school ministers.


* House of Commons briefing paper Number 7033, 2 December 2016.  I’m unable to provide a link but an internet search will find it.

NOTES:  FSM6 data for individual schools was from the DfE School Performance Tables






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