The Local Schools Network goes head to head with the New Schools Network

Fiona Millar's picture
This morning I took part in a debate with the New Schools Network's Rachel Wolf on the BBC's Woman's Hour. It was the second time in the past month that Rachel and I have crossed swords on the issue of free schools and the part they will play in the English education system. Last time was for a longer discussion also on the BBC's Hard Talk programme which goes out around the world and has led to some interesting responses from overseas viewers.

While I don't agree with much of Rachel says, I like her and find her a challenging opponent as she is well informed and passionate about what she believes. However this morning's discussion left me uneasy for two reasons. We discussed the subtle ways that schools can attract or deter certain pupils from applying. British academics Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse, who have studied the US charter schools, describe the process of admissions and attrition ( mysteriously losing pupils as time goes on) as 'dregs sifting'.

It is also quite clear that, as we have feared, this free schools policy is now deliberately setting out to create surplus places in some areas. Moreover the government has not yet confirmed how many free schools will actually be opening in September, raising the possibility that some parents may start the school holidays without knowing whether or not their children have places in free schools or not. If they do learn towards the start of the new term that the free school is opening, where does that leave existing schools that will suddenly lose pupils?

It is hard not to believe that this is really a huge experiment that will have winners and losers . As Laura McInerney points out in her pamphlet about The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools and how to avoid them it is the projects that have opened too fast, without proper consultation and research in to the local context, that have often failed. It will be very sad for all the children concerned if that happens here.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


H & F Parent's picture
Thu, 07/07/2011 - 20:44

Thought you came well out on top Fiona. Rachel, articulate though she may be, is beating the drum for privately run schools funded by taxpayers' money. Dame Jenny didn't sound too enamoured ot her ideas either.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 08/07/2011 - 00:14

Rachel Wolf gives the impression that Charter Schools in America – and she specifically mentions wealthy New York - have closed the attainment divide between rich and poor. The picture isn’t quite a rosy as she would like us to believe. To prove that poverty doesn’t matter, political leaders point to schools that have achieved stunning results in only a few years despite the poverty around them. But the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny.

In 2005, New York’s mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, announced an astonishing 49-point jump in the proportion of fourth grade students there who met state standards in reading. In 2004, only 34% reached proficiency, but in 2005, 83% did. A year later, the proportion of fourth-graders at who passed the state reading test dropped by 41 points. By 2010, the passing rate was back down to 37%, nearly the same as before 2005.

In January, President Obama publicly praised the Bruce Randolph School in Denver, where the first senior class had a graduation rate of 97%. Close scrutiny of this school, which had been “one of the worst schools in Colorado” before its transformation as a charter, reveals that, in its middle school, only 21% were proficient or advanced in maths, placing Randolph in the fifth percentile in the state (meaning that 95 percent of schools performed better). Only 10% met the state science standards. In writing and reading, the school was in the first percentile.

In March, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, to laud the transformation of Miami Central Senior High School. The head and half the staff of this failing school had been fired, Charter status was enforced on the school and the President boasted that, post transformation, “performance has skyrocketed by more than 60% in maths,” and that graduation rates rose to 63 percent, from 36 percent. But in maths, it ranks 430th out of 469 high schools in Florida. Only 56 percent of its students meet state maths standards, and only 16% met state reading standards. The graduation rate rose, but the school still ranks 431st, well below the state median graduation rate of 87%. The improvements at Miami Central are too small and too new to conclude that dismissing heads and teachers can improve a school

The Stanford University CREDO report remains the most authoritative analysis of the Charter School movement. It’s 2009 report concluded that only “17% of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37% of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46% of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.”

In January 2010, they published a supplement, focusing on New York charters. Unsurprisingly, Charter school performance is generally positive in wealthy New York City compared to that of traditional public schools and these results also compare favourably in comparison with national pooled results.

However, the results for students in poverty only show a tiny statistical positive impact in reading and no significant difference in maths as compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools. SEN students and students whose first language is not English receive no significant benefit or loss from charter school attendance compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools in
reading and maths.

This mirrors the trend across America, where charters have achieved little or nothing to improve the standards of education for the poorest, especially amongst the black and hispanic communities (New York City being, naturally, the exception)

So we should respond cautiously to claims made by Rachel Wolf and other Free School advocators of miraculous transformations because the United States example shows us that the truth is a lot murkier and there is no reason to believe that it will be any different here.

The achievement gap between children from different income levels exists before children even enter school. All schools must improve; every one should have a stable, experienced staff, great resources and a balanced curriculum but this is what comprehensives have been demanding for years. The solution isn’t enforced change and upping the bar – it is providing existing schools and social welfare departments with adequate resources to tackle deprivation and the problems resulting from it.

If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved. That is the miracle, not the one offered by Rachel Wolf.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 08/07/2011 - 08:15

The Woman's Hour programme highlighted the concerns of the Head of Henbury School, Bristol, that if the Bristol Free School opens and attracts 150 pupils, then this would create a surplus of 300 places in other Bristol secondary schools. No government or local authority will fund surplus places - even though, as the OECD says in its 2011 Economic Survey UK that if user choice is to be a reality then surplus places need to be funded. However, this isn't going to happen and if a school loses pupils then it loses funding. This means losing teachers, reducing course choice, less money to spend on maintenance and so on, making the school less attractive to parents. Local authorities at the moment have a legal obligation to reduce surplus places and so will close unviable schools even if the primary school demographic shows that those places will be needed in a few years' time. Who will take over this obligation when a large number of schools in an LA are academies is unclear. Will the LA be expected to close the non-academy schools?

The government needs to make it clear - if they are serious about increasing user choice (although the international evidence about the effect of user choice on education outcomes is mixed) then they must be willing to fund surplus places and ensure that schools will falling pupil numbers are not disadvantaged. However, it won't do this because it says that if schools fail to attract pupils then they should go to the wall.

Ms Wolf said that free schools would give "desperate" parents the chance of getting their children into a "good" school ("good" as measured by exam results or "good" as a school which doesn't have children from social housing or "good" as in giving a rounded education?). These parents, she said, would include those who were disadvantaged and the latter would be particularly helped because the majority of free schools approved and up-and-coming were in deprived areas. The FactCheck Blog repudiates this claim:

And she, and the government, should really look at what the OECD had to say about
socio-economic disadvantaged students rather than embarking on establishing free schools which will only affect a small number of pupils. The OECD findings are discussed here:

O. Spencer's picture
Sat, 09/07/2011 - 10:21


I understand that you and other regular contributors are insistent on pushing the line that middle classes have a pathologically fear of 'their kids' mixing with kids from social housing.

Perhaps there are a fair number of such parents, the Hyacinth Buckets of the educational world.

Surely you don't think that a parent would choose a school firstly on the basis of how few 'poor' kids are there, and only secondarily because of results or curriculum?

As I put forward on the other thread on the OECD disadvantaged report, there are many schools in my LA with numbers of pupils on FSM far below the national average.

One school in my LA with 13% on FSM achieves only 1 or 2% better 5 good GCSE pass rate as South Camden Community School which has a staggering 53.5% of pupils on FSM (Source: DfE website)

William Ellis achieves the national average 5 good GCSE figure despite having a third of pupils on FSM and over a third whose first language isn't English.

My former comprehensive school has only 2.4% on FSM. The local Catholic school actually has a higher% on FSM at 3.4% yet achieves 80% good GCSE passes.

Now, either using FSM as an indicator of 'disadvantage' is wrong or else economic disadvantage does not play such a decisive role in outcomes.

We talk of 'socio-economic' disadvantage, but I believe we need to separate social disadvantage from pure financial disadvantage to better get at this problem.

O. Spencer's picture
Sat, 09/07/2011 - 10:21

Sorry first line should read *pathological

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 07:56

O Spencer - if you read what I actually wrote I was giving three possible interpretations of the word "good" when applied to a school. However, these three possible interpretations were:

1 Good as measured by raw exam results
2 Good as measured by the school's social mix (particularly avoiding children from social housing)
3 Good as in giving a rounded education.

My suggestions were followed by a question mark. I was not, as you say, "pushing the line that middle classes have a pathological fear of their kids mixing with kids from social housing". I was giving this as one possible interpretation out of three - there may be even more.

If you had read my post carefully you would see that I was not saying that all middle-class parents look first at a school's social mix before looking at other factors. However, you say "perhaps there are a fair number of such parents". I would agree with you here and it's naive to suggest otherwise.

I agree with your point about separating social disadvantage for economic disadvantage. It's an important point because it is quite possible for a child living in comfortable circumstances to be socially disadvantaged, and it is equally possible for a child in disadvantaged circumstances to be socially adept because of good parenting which overcomes the financial disadvantage.

O. Spencer's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 08:52


The point of your post, and posts elsewhere, was to prove the argument that free schools will help disadvantaged children is wrong. Your 'questions' I felt were more rhetorical than real, and I believe it was your intention to suggest that the 'desperate' parents referred to by Rachel Wolf were trying to exclude disadvantaged children from new schools. Certainly, this would tally with many of your comments on other threads, that the real purpose of free schools is to enable the 'strong-elbowed' to set up free schools in affluent areas that by covert selection exclude the disadvantaged.

Such comments clearly give rise to a reasonable impression on the part of the reader that you feel that many middle-class parents are motivated by a pathological fear of their children mixing with children from social housing who may be on free school meals.

You haven't addressed my points on this thread or on the previous thread [

I think there were 2 key points:

1. A high % on free school meals alone does not necessarily imply poor school results. In many schools in my LA, the % on FSM is lower than average and the results are still bad (10%+ below national average). In schools like the Camden Community School and William Ellis, the % on FSM is high, and yet results were still comparable with schools in my area that have a much fewer FSM pupils. Such schools are obviously doing something to make up for the fact that a high proportion of their intake come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

2. Almost paradoxically given the above, the schools in my area getting the best GCSE results take the lowest % of FSM pupils. My former school has 2.4% of pupils on FSM, the other top comp in the area has 7.6% of pupils on FSM. The best local school, a Catholic school, has 3.4% of pupils on FSM.

In this area (the distance between the above three schools is about 1-2 miles) middle class parents predominate. They have effectively 'locked-out' the area and catchment areas for themselves. They have the two highest performing comprehensives available to them via catchment areas, and if they want to go that extra mile and have their kids attend a Catholic school which achieves 80% GCSE passes A*-C they can with a bit of work.

Now what of the children from social housing? There is a large council estate approximately 2 miles away from these schools. There is a secondary school on the estate. 27% of pupils there are on FSM, incidentally still much lower than at William Ellis or Camden Community. 35% of pupils got 5 good GCSEs - dreadful yet consider that in 2007 this was 19%. I'd like to hear your response to this Janet, and everyone else who posts here.

My particular experience reveals a large segregation between relatively advantaged and disadvantaged children. How can it be that one school has 2.4% of pupils on FSM and steals the show with results yet the neighbouring school 2 miles down the road has 27% of pupils on FSM and scored very badly in results?

The Admissions Code has reinforced these divisions for decades. As supporters of 'good, local schools' I'd be interested to hear from as many people on this site with suggestions for how such a situation as outlined above can be overcome.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 11:11

O Spencer - you ask how it is that one school with a tiny number of pupils on free schools meals "steals the show" while a nearby school 2 miles dow the road has over a quarter on FSM and scored badly. As I've said elsewhere, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found a high correlation between socio-economic intake and results. This holds across the world, not just in the UK. OECD suggest reasons for this which I have listed in a separate thread.

O. Spencer's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 11:18


South Camden Community School has over half its pupils on FSM, yet its GCSE pass rates are actually higher than the school I mentioned which has only a quarter on FSM.

So clearly the OECD have a point, but we need to go much further than saying 'deprivation=poor results' because it doesn't seem to explain everything!

Please try and respond to some of my points with a more convincing argument! There is a high correlation, yes - but what ELSE do you think helps results?

We began to scratch the surface elsewhere - absence rates, teacher:pupil ratios.. this is what we need to be discussing moreso than 'socio-economic disadvantage' because that alone clearly doesn't demonstrate much.


Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 14:26

Instead of performing your usual trick of ignoring the main point of the post and trying to lead people off the scent of a very important point by posturing about barely related arguments and inviting people to go deeper into the vortex of your circular and mostly irrelevant comments, why don't you offer us any views of what the original post posed?

1. What is your opinion of Free Schools creating surplus places and of the situation where Free Schools don't open but have enrolled children?
2. What do you think of the Charter system which encourages high attrition rates and covert selection?

O. Spencer's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 15:12

Allan, I am not performing any 'trick' and if I am it is not with the intention of 'leading people off the scent'. I am certainly not 'posturing' as I care very deeply about these issues.

What I notice on this site is an issue-by-issue sniping about the government's education policies. That's fine - but this site is called the Local Schools Network and not the Anti-Academies Alliance or 'Free Schools - the dangers', therefore I expect much of the content to be discussions about the virtues of local schools and debates over how to address their failings.

Clearly I am mistaken in thinking this as the majority of posts concern attacks on free schools which do not even exist yet. My comments pertain to the shortcomings of the current system, in an attempt to balance criticisms of the proposed free schools. One example - critics of free schools say they favour the middle classes- I pointed out that my former comprehensive only had 2.4% of pupils on FSM - did it favour the middle classes too?

The majority of posts on here attract comments from like-minded people merely repeating the content of the post and glib 'I agree..' statements. I am trying to inject some healthy debate, so please don't criticise me for that Allan!

To answer your questions:
1. I presume 'surplus places' is the term favoured over 'parental choice'. Free schools will try and attract parents and pupils from the area, if the parents have the same concerns over free schools like many on this site - they won't go there will they! f schools are unable to attract parent confidence, it's a sign that there is something wrong with the school beyond the 'middle class' attitude of not wanting their children mixing with the children from the estates - the argument we constantly hear on this site. Yes some parents do have this attitude, but there are more complex reasons for parent confidence or lack of in schools beyond this caricature. I am trying to go into them.. As to the second point of your question, that hasn't happened yet. If it were to, then that's a failure and I'd criticise it.

2. I'm not sure that the Charter system 'encourages' high attrition or covert selection. Both may happen in the Charter system, but that's not the same as 'encouraging' it. The report Fiona linked to in her original post only had a paragraph on this phenomenon. Is there any evidence that the propsed free schools intend to 'dreg sift' and to covertly select their intakes? Outside of the usual Lefty propaganda, I've not seen much.

Critics will say free schools might, through admissions procedures and how they market themselves to parents, seek to 'covertly' select pupils. But we haven't had the data on how many pupils on FSM are at these schools so we can't make concrete statements either way. On the other hand we can discuss covert selection in the state system at the moment, as there are plenty of examples of it.

To comment more on Fiona's piece: Yes the fact that parents might enter the holiays not knowing if their child/ren will be attending a free school or not is unacceptable and I hope for everyone's sake this is sorted out ASAP.

I'd just like to ask Fiona - and everyone else - why is the opening of a free school in an area seen as such a threat? Because it will suck in the middle classes? Because it might expose the weaknesses and show up existing schools? Because choice is wrong? Because it might prove the success and requirement for an academically rigorous education and challenge sterotypes?

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 16:29

I suggest that you spend a day or two of quality time looking all the posts on this site, as well as in the web pages of broadsheets, and get yourself informed about the changes that are happening in state education. That way, you won't have to ask the questions that you posed in your final paragraph because they have been addressed and answered to death. Additionally, we might also be spared more lengthy discourses from you which incorrectly disproves what someone has told you because you either cannot understand what they have written or you willfully choose to ignore it, presumably because it doesn't fit what you would like to hear.

Perhaps you would like to share what knowledge you have of Charter Schools? This is actually very important if you are debating Free Schools. Charter Schools have changed the landscape of high school education in the US, they are the model for the DfE school reform policy and so an understanding of them would give clues as to why many people are critical of FS and Academies. Yes, covert selection and attrition is high in Charters - and yes, the system encourages it. I suggest to type in Charter Schools and spend another two days getting acquainted with arguments for and against, especially from the American perspective before here publicising your ignorance of them. And you could spend a week, as I did, poring over Stanford University's CREDO report which showed that the vast majority of Charters either perform no better than public schools, or do worse. Acquaint yourself with the mountain of litigation against private companies running charter schools, with wholescale closing down of schools, with little being done to improve educational standards for the poor black and hispanic communities in rural area, with the deep social divisions that charters have caused, then come back and ask for more "evidence".

I don't think anyone here as made "concrete" statements about covert selection in Academies and Free Schools. What people are saying, though, is that the chance to do so, especially with a reduced Admissions Code, and some highly dubious exclusion practices at some Academies, is very very high. Added to this, the prejudices and ideologies of Toby Young, Katharine Birbalsingh, Education chains and faith schools, are publicly and in some cases, aggressively, put over by their very own blogs, so I think we can safely add off-putting statements as an attempt at covert selection. Again, read up on these posts before asking crass questions, please.

Finally, choice is not "wrong" but choice which favours some (for example the middle class, articulate and pushy) at the expense of others not so fortunate is not choice. Choice is neither the government dictating that a community can either have an Academy or a Free School, not a LA maintained school. Where is the choice here for the significant number of people who want a non-selective community school which provides a wide curriculum and caters to the individual needs of each and every child. Choice is not choice when your school is unilaterally closed down because the bar has shifted who the school has fallen below and without taking into consideration other factors contributing to the schools "failure". Choice is not choice when a child cannot or does not want to have what you call an "academically rigorous education" and is this excluded. Choice is not choice when children are segregated out of the top level of a two tier system and forced into the lower one, no matter what is called, to feel abandoned by the system and demeaned as second class citizens.

Choice is not choice when schools in a local area are pitted against each other, competitively, not so that each benefits from healthy competition with each other, as well sharing valuable resources, but in a fight to the death, for survival. Choice is not choice when parents are increasingly bewildered by the chaos and lack of local accountability as Free Schools and Academies spring up, without proper consultation and with a deliberate lack of transparency on the part of the government. Choice is not choice when a schools governance and head drive through Academization.

And choice is certainly not choice when sparse tax payers funds are diverted away from maintained schools and used to forcibly turn them into Academies and to fund start up and running costs of Free Schools when comprehensives are in danger of being run down and turned into sink schools where children rejected from the new schools can presumably go and rot.

I think it is extremely hypocritical of you to claim that you wish to have a healthy debate and for you to posture that you care deeply about school issues. What you actually care about is to see the establishment of a education system that will focus on nurturing the advantages - academic, intellectual, social - of an elite group of young people, of whatever class - at the expense and degradation of children disadvantaged because of late development, disability, poverty, poor family support, abandonment by the state.

Only a few would claim that the comprehensive system it perfect, but those of us who support is have been crying out for years for investment or cash and other resources to build infrastructures so that each school can improve. Your Academies and Free schools will do nothing to expose weaknesses because weak schools will be exposed, whether they are comprehensives, Academies or Free Schools. Change for the sake of Quick Change, and at the whim of an incompetent and increasingly sleazy government determined to make its mark in its first term, is not the long term solution for improving our education system. But a lucky few will benefit and that is really all you care about because I bet you won't be wondering what happened to the ones that get left behind. If you did, you'd have read up the pros and cons of education reform, studied Charter Schools and realised how grossly unfair and unequal this policies are.

O. Spencer's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 17:00

Thanks for the pep talk, Allan. Most of my contributions to this site have been responded to with good grace and courtesy, particularly by Janet Downs. Unfortunately Allan I find your responses very aggressive, personally insulting and in this case putting words and thoughts into my head which I have neither said nor thought.

I really do not understand how I am being hypocritical in my actions, Allan. This site seeks to defend comprehensive education in this country - fair play, all I want to do is flag up problems. The 'the real changes we need' section in the 'our beliefs' tab amounts to two very small paragraphs. I would like to add to that, and seek to do so by engaging in debate here.

As for your rant that all I care about is
'to see the establishment of a education system that will focus on nurturing the advantages – academic, intellectual, social – of an elite group of young people, of whatever class – at the expense and degradation of children disadvantaged because of late development, disability, poverty, poor family support, abandonment by the state'

I really wonder what it is that I have said that inspires such vitriol from you. As the son of two parents who failed the 11+ and obtained 1 O Level between them, and who believes in improving social mobility, the charge you lay against me above is laughable.

You have no right to claim that I advocate a system that operates at the expense of those disadvantaged children, because you don't quote anything I've written here as proof that that is what I advocate.

I do not believe free schools or Academies will solve some of the underlying problems in our education system. So please stop saying 'your academies' and 'your free schools'. They are not 'mine'!

You claim that supporters of the comprehensive system have been calling out for years for injections of cash. In 1997 the Education budget was £29 billion, in 2010 it was £70 billion. If that wasn't an injection of cash, what on earth would be.

I enjoy debating with posters on this site, but please don't put words in my mouth such as that I only care about a privileged few, screw the rest, etc. It's simply untrue and unfair. I treat yours, and everyone else's posts, with respect even though I may disagree strongly. I do not try and put words in other people's mouths, and I would appreciate the same courtesy back.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 17:22


I admire Janet enormously for her kindness, restraint and patience and wish I shared her temperance. Obviously I don't react in the same commendable way to points raised and questions posed with the intention of eliciting a response which you can slyly rebuff. I'm not really particularly interested in whether you ultimately get yourself better informed about the issues surrounding school reform here or in the US but for your own sake, I would.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 14:01

O Spencer - I've suggested some possible ways in which results might be improved on the other thread re socio-deprivation. The OECD also suggested some possible causes. These are spelled out in more detail on the other thread but include: inequity of teaching resources, language spoken at home and schools having a large number of disadvantaged pupils.

The OECD also suggest that "better targeted pre-schooling can support social mobility and increase educational efficiency" (p 90 OECD Economic Survey UK 2011). OECD recognises that there has been mixed results about the efficacy of Sure Start (some research found positive impacts, while other showed little improvement in average cognitive abilities (p91 op cit). OECD found a worrying trend: that "disadvantaged children seemed to perform worse in 2006 than in 2001. OECD concluded that the "low impact on disadvantaged children so far is likely to partly reflect that interventions [such as Sure Start] often do not reach the neediest children... participation of children from ethnic minorities and socially disadvantaged backgrounds remains relatively low" (p91 op cit).

You say that "socio-economic disadvantage" alone doesn't demonstrate much. OECD thinks it's important or it wouldn't factor socio-economic disadvantage into its assessment of how school systems are doing. Yet this Government won't do that. In fact, it's removed Contextual Value Added (CVA) from the league tables preferring instead to judge schools on raw exam data alone.

Keith Turvey's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 18:59

This is a very interesting thread and apologies if I haven't picked up on the subtleties of all of the posts but some of the issues as I see it from scanning the above are:

1. 'Good' schools debate - very difficult to actually measure particularly as with the ebac they are shifting the goal posts yet again.

2. Deprivation is not synonymous with under-achievement - much of the evidence given above can be rolled out for both sides in this debate. That is there are schools with high proportions of kids eligible for FSM who do better in terms of raw exam results than schools with fewer kids on FSM. What's not clear here though is if this changes when you used the lens of the ebac.

Ways forward:

Something I would like to see introduced is the introduction of the compulsory reservation of a proportion of places at schools for kids from deprived areas. This would click in when schools' intakes fell below the borough average. There would also be financial incentives/disincentives for falling below the borough average of FSM. State schools receiving state funding should be required to reflect the socio-economic, ethnic, cultural etc. make up of the wider society.

This isn't going to solve the issue of poor teaching though. The problem with the increasingly mixed economy of education (grammar schools, academies, free schools, comprehensives, faith schools and so on) is that it provides more cover for poor teaching throughout the system. The more socially, culturally, ethnically, religiously economically, segregated the school system becomes the harder it gets to recognise good or poor teaching - crude exam results alone are not an adequate measure. That's not to say they're not important.

I have some sympathy also with the issue of reading too much into socio-economic deprivation. It is an important factor but perhaps the anomalies that have been argued over above can be explained by the diversity that prevails even with specific socio-economic groups. For example the index of multiple deprivation can be weighted in different ways according to social, economic and educational factors. Here in Brighton some wards that are ranked near the bottom of the index when weighted for socio-economic factors come comfortably mid table when weighted more towards education. This is the case in areas where there may be a high population of students and mature students with families choosing to pursue higher education (masters, PhD etc) over more economically driven career choices. So socio-economic deprivation measures can still be quite a blunt tool.

But to cut to the chase, we need to move beyond this obsession that politicians have with systemic change. It just serves to confuse the issues further.

Keith Turvey's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 19:42

Actually under point 2. above I should have said socio-economic deprivation is not necessarily synonymous with under achievement. I've just run a check on the Government's IMD calculator and some areas come in the bottom 10% on the general IMD (weighted towards economic output/income) but shoot up to within 50% when weighted towards education. So what I'm saying is that it's complex and we shouldn't use these phrases loosely. O Spencer when you talk above about anomalies in the FSM % to raw results it not fine-grained enough. Yes they're kids from low income families but this doesn't mean they don't have educational aspirations.

O. Spencer's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 19:42

Good evening Keith, You raise a number of interesting points in your post. I was trying to convey in my posts the ambiguity of the data. Some schools with high numbers of disadvantaged children do very well, even outperforming schools with fewer disadvantaged children. Yet it remains the case that for the most part the best schools tend to have the fewest number of disadvantaged children. That's something we all need to unpick I think. In other words, in the case of good schools, it's easy to ascribe that success to the fact that they have fewer FSM pupils. The issue comes when looking at why some schools with a 'challenging' intake can do better than schools which have a less challenging intake.

Your suggestion about compulsory reservation has some merits. However, what happens in areas that are already segregated in that the good schools are in the 'right' areas and the disadvantaged children actually live a few miles away? In my own case I went to school on the outskirts of a city, and many of the disadvantaged children were either in the inner-city or in one of the post-war 'overspill' estates a few miles away. When do we sacrifice the need for good local schools for having a more socially-balanced mix? Sometimes the demands of the two can be contradictory. This isn't so much the case in London but is so elsewhere.

You mentioned Brighton, Keith. A cursory amount of research on the DfE site shows two schools in the same postcode with wildly different levels of attainment. Dorothy Stringer High School has 8.7% of pupils claiming FSM, and achieves 63% good GCSE passes, with 21% gaining the EBacc. Twenty minutes' walk down the road to Patcham High School, which has 19% on FSM, achieves only 37% of good GCSE passes and only 2% achieve the EBacc.

These two schools might benefit from your compulsory reservation idea! In any case, could you shed some light on the possibilities for the differences with some social or environmental information? The schools seem to serve the same area so the difference in intake and attainment are interesting.


Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 20:52

It is an extremely complex issue and socio-economic deprivation does have an impact on the results of individual schools and on national averages. It is not difficult to see why, for example, private schools do so much better and why "sink" state schools, struggling with a disproportionately high number of children from deprived backgrounds, tend to do badly, which consequently puts many parents off sending their children to them.

Bad teachers can be found in all types of schools, even private ones, so that cannot be taken as a definite measure of how a school can perform but there is an attempt by the present government to convince the public that the state school system was much worse than it actually was by pandering to the fears of people who wanted to see that the system was "broken" and thereby justifying their "radical" reforms. The inference, if not the actual accusation, was that schools were failing because of bad teachers, left wing ideology and the incompetence of Local Authorities.

These are the same arguments laid at the door of public schools in America, so that the people who ran charters - mainly profit making companies and the philanthropists - could impose their vision onto the national K-12 national education system. But has it solved the problem of educating children in areas where socio-economic deprivation is the norm? Apparently not, according to a number of evidence-based research.

It is easy for Gove to focus our attention on a handful of Academies, Mossbourne Academy in Hackney for example, as justification for accelerated Academy expansion but there is no guarantee that a handful of successes in a "deprived" area would translate to all similar Academies around the country. One experiment in the north-east has failed and the school had to be bailed out recently as it is a flagship Academy. I didn't see Gove inviting the head of that school to any conferences. As far as Mossbourne is concerned, I would like to challenge the spin that here is a school which transformed the standards, aspirations and lives of children in a severely deprived area. I have to say that Mossbourne is very close to where I live and the school has a healthy mix of children of differing backgrounds. It is a myth that the school was populated with poor deprived kids and that a miracle occured there, thanks just to Academization, discipline, long hours and great teaching. The reasons are more complex than that. One would also like to question the high exclusion rates from the school and one wonders also about any managed moves.

Sam Freedman, Gove's policy advisor, said only this week that British school reform was based on New York Charters. Well, funny that, because New York Charters are successful for a number of reasons including the fact that NYC is a wealthy city, exclusion rates are high, schools were closed down, teachers punished or rewarded for test performances and there have been scandals involving charters excluding low-attaining children from sitting standardized tests. It is true that New York charters can do better than public schools in hitting targets for black and hispanic children but it is also true that poverty-related issues are also being dealt with by some charters like Harlem Children’s Zone, whose vast financial resources can be earmarked not just for educational needs, but also to provide social welfare help for the children too. Such is the success, philanthropists and celebrities are lining up to offer more to HCZ because no one wants to be associated with failure.

The question is – if Charters are such a good model why are Freedman and Gove limiting their model to the New York one? I wonder if it is because Charters have done little or nothing to address raising attainment levels in areas where socio-economic deprivation is widespread and the norm, when research suggests only 17% do better as public schools? It is easy to boast of successes in culturally and economically mixed areas. Fine that a minority of deprived kids are getting a great education but what have American schools reform done for the majority of poor kids? Not much, it seems. America hasn’t solved the problem of breaking the low attainment/poverty cycle and the signs are that the coalition, in using the New York model as an inspiration, won’t be doing it here either.

Keith Turvey's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 20:00

Evening O Spencer. Also interesting reply from yourself. Yes I think there does come a point where a good local school for local children is not altogether compatible with reserving places for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas. For me the system has to be dynamic and some displacement is inevitable if the goal is a social mix. Where there are schools where the segregation is significant as you mention this can't be done overnight but over a five year period there could be an expectation that the school with far fewer FSM% is expected to make significant moves to redressing this balance.

With regards the Brighton schools you highlight, yes this is an interesting anomaly you've picked up. The school with 19% FSM is on an improving trajectory in terms of results. In the past children from the poorest estates across the other side of the city were directed by bus to this school but the redrawing of the catchments and introduction of the new system in 2008 did alter this school's catchment. The new catchment will be starting their GCSEs this year and I'd predict that there's likely to be further improvement in the GCSE results. Changes in catchments etc., take a while to work through.

O. Spencer's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 20:36

Thanks for your prompt response, Keith. It's frustrating how the two priorities pull you in different directions. In my own case, it would be great if more kids from the sink estate 2 miles away could have got into my school, but that would involve bus-ing them in, and would potentially involve people living a few doors' down from me having to bus their kids all the way to where the school on the estate is. A few logistical headaches to put it mildly! Not to mention the social ones..

Many thanks for the extra info on that school in Brighton. What about info on the other one - Dorothy Stringer High School. Is it in a middle class bubble? Any particular reasons for it having a below-average FSM intake?

These are a few interesting comparable stats:
Dorothy Stringer: SEN 11.2%(without statements) pupil:teacher 14.9:1 persistent absence 6%
Patcham: SEN: 29.2% (without statements) pupil:teacher 13.4:1 persistent absence 9.4%

Now we start to enter the territory Janet Downs pointed us in the direction of. Given these statistics, it is most revealing that Dorothy Stringer employs 11.6 FTE special needs support staff, given that only 11.2% of its pupils have SEN. By contrast, Patcham High with 29.2% with SEN only employs 5.1 FTE special needs support staff.

Now to me it just doesn't make any sense to concentrate these support staff in one school which only has 11.2% of pupils with SEN when a nearby school has nearly 3 times as many SEN pupils but has less than half the support staff!

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 20:59

I wonder what SEN provisions the better performing Academies provide? And how many statemented children Free Schools will accept in return for the few hundred pounds offered by the DfE

Keith Turvey's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 22:39

Yes interesting questions both. The problem with %SEN figures (without statements) is that whilst there are clear levels of SEN provision identified (School action, school action plus?) there is great variation between some schools in there use of the SEN register and SEN are not bound by socio-economic group. I think Alan's question is also important here. The system of league tables and more stand alone schools outside of LA support doesn't exactly bode well with regards SEN as we saw in the piece I wrote about the Yorkshire Nationwide Schools org's interest in starting up a free school - SEN was not high on their agenda it seemed from the meeting we attended.

With regards your first paragraph yes it's not easy achieving a social mix and perhaps the only real way is through ensuring that in the long term all areas' housing stock is mixed. But I think we could move towards a much less segregated system. Interestingly, in Brighton's primary schools where entry is by distance to school you do get this dynamic flow. As more parents move down from London and often move close to the popular and perceived 'good' schools other parents are displaced and have to support a school further away. We've got several friends who have reluctantly done this but been quite pleasantly surprised by the 'less popular' school. Of course, understandably this causes issues. Some parents who can afford to opt out and go private whereas others support the school further away and you get schools that were not so popular becoming more popular. Several primary schools have benefit from this locally I think.

DS like other secondary schools in Brighton became a very popular school and under the old distance to school measure did attract a more middle class intake. This has been evened out slightly under the new system but will take a while to work through I think. However, it;s true to say that even under the Brighton and Hove catchment and lotteries system the children from the poorest estates do not access the popular schools. They don't even get a chance to buy a ticket as the lotteries are prioritised for the children within catchment.

thechandra's picture
Wed, 21/03/2012 - 10:00

Is thrre a way I can contact you to ask where you got this data from about Dorothy stringer v Patcham. V interesting and confirms my observations about schools downgrading SEN and diverting SEN funds (including statemented funds) to service the main population. As you probably can tell I don't think it is about concentrating staff in one place at the expense of another - I think it is about decisions SMTs at individual schools make about what they think are the priorities - generally to make short term career gains for newly appointed heads (they prioritise getting 5 good GCSE passes so put disproportionate funding into that as opposed to people they think would struggle to get 1 GCSE). As a matter of interest is there a general correlation like this (performance v no. SEN support staff). Has anyone done a study?

O. Spencer's picture
Mon, 11/07/2011 - 07:28

Interesting post, Keith. Yes, Allan's question is important here. We need to look at the best performing state schools - comprehensive, Academy, Community, faith and so on - and ensure that their excellent results are because of truly excellent teaching and encouragement, and not because they manage to avoid an average intake of disadvantaged or SEN pupils. From what you have said there seem to be some issues regarding SEN provision at new schools, let's wait and see on that.

Now of course there may be some areas where there are very few disadvantaged or SEN pupils, and others where there are proportionally more. My old school would defend its 2.4% FSM intake by saying look at the feeder schools - 2 of them have FSM intakes of 3.8%, 4.2% but one has 21.2% . The intake of the secondary school is clearly skewed towards the first two feeder schools - the ones in the more middle class area.

Your comments chime well with many things raised on the 'Strong Elbows' thread. You mention the phenomenon of people moving from London to buy into the good schools and displacing those parents who can't afford to live near them. This has had resulted in the popularity of schools further away (and presumably with worse results?) getting better. That sounds good for the other schools.

The lottery system to me seems unfair. It's fair in the sense that certain 'strong elbow' tactics are made impossible but if ultimately it's based on a catchment area those outside it will not be able to access the good school. And if, as in your experience Keith, the less popular schools only become popular (and good?) when middle class parents send their children there, it begs the question - can a school be good without a strong cohort of middle class kids? It's not the most pleasant thought to have, but one certainly feels the evidence points in that direction..

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 11/07/2011 - 10:01

The OECD has interesting and relevant comments to make about the effects of socio-economically disadvantage and education attainment. These comments are based on global data and apply globally. I will post these thoughts on the thread re socio-economic deprivation.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 15/07/2011 - 07:02

Here is a piece by TES, reporting that Clare Bradford, Head of Henbury School and Chair of the Bristol Association of Secondary Headteachers and Principals, is considering a legal challenge if Michael Gove approves the Bristol Free School on the grounds that the school did not follow proper procedure.

"My primary concern is the impact it will have on the social cohesion of the area. If you create a school that is just for a certain community then we are going to end up with problems. I think it will just end up being a middle-class school for middle-class parents," she said.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.