FACT CHECK: How many free schools are there? And are they all getting better results?
The New Schools Network (NSN) ‘has worked with two-thirds of the 691 free schools that have opened or been approved to open so far and the charity will, I am sure, remain at the heart of what is proving to be the most successful education policy of the post-war period,’ said Toby Young when he resigned as NSN Director.
The figure 691 includes both open free schools and those at the pre-opening stage. Readers might assume there were far more open free schools than ones in the pipeline. But that isn’t the case.
There are 475 open free schools including University Technical College (UTCs) and studio schools. The number of open free schools drops to 391 when these are removed.
There are 306 in the pipeline (including one UTC) but there’s no guarantee they will all open. In April 2017, the NUT discovered nearly £140m had been ‘wasted’ on scrapped free schools, UTCs and studio schools. In October 2017, TES revealed the Department for Education (DfE) spent millions on LocatEd, a company specialising in finding sites for free schools, before it even existed.
David Laws, former schools minister, revealed Michael Gove siphoned £400m from Basic Needs Funding to the free schools programme when Gove was education secretary.
Millions spent, then, on an initiative which in some areas has provided needed school places but has also seen free schools opening where there are already surplus places or which threaten the viability of existing schools. And a small number, albeit a tiny proportion, have been so bad they have had to be closed. Devastating for the pupils concerned and an unacceptable waste of taxpayers' money.
This is hardly the ‘most successful education policy of the post-war period’. Such hyperbole is risible. The raising of the school leaving age, the spread of a fairer, comprehensive system and the introduction of GCSEs are far more important post-war policies.
Young repeated the claim that ‘Free schools are more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted than all other types of schools, are more popular with parents and are getting better results’. But they’re also more likely to be rated less than good. Especially so, if UTCs and studio schools are included. And 20% of free schools, not including UTCs and studio schools, entering pupils for GCSE in 2017 were below the floor standard for Progress 8. This proportion would increase significantly if UTCs and studio schools were included.
The DfE and NSN include UTCs and studio schools when they provide favourable sound bites but ignore them when they don’t.
But, as I’ve pointed out before, statements comparing free schools with other schools are misleading. That’s because there are too few to be able to come to a reliable conclusion.
The desire to hype free schools by ministers, DfE propagandists and NSN is, however, too great to bother about whether claims are misleading. Let’s hope the new director of NSN, which has just had its contract renewed, will be less inclined to spin the stats. And that goes for ministers too.