The jury’s still out on how many of the 24 free schools are in deprived areas

Janet Downs's picture
DfE analysis disputes claims that more than half of the newly-opened Free Schools are in the most advantaged areas. However, the DfE advises caution when arguments are based on larger areas than those used in its analysis as these may “contain mixed pockets of deprivation and affluence”. Its findings are more nuanced than announcements from Rachel Wolf et al that most Free Schools are in disadvantaged areas. The analysis found that it would be “more reasonable to claim some concentration in the most deprived areas since 12 of the 24 schools are in the 30% of areas which are most deprived.”  investigated competing claims in a Conservative Party press release and the Guardian about where Free Schools are situated. The Conservative press release used the DfE figures above while the Guardian’s research employed different ways of measuring catchments areas and their wealth. The Guardian’s figures found that only nine of the free schools are in areas where income is less than the national average. FullFact concluded “neither report can fully demonstrate or predict the eventual socio-economic make up of the new Free Schools. For a more accurate assessment of the economic and social circumstances of the new Free Schools’ intake we are forced to wait until the publication of the number of students receiving free school meals.”

So we’ll just have to wait and see.
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Jake's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 08:03

For once I would agree with you Janet - lets wait and see. Rome was not built in a day. In the interim, nice to see Deborah Orr have the courage of her convictions and be honest enough to rise above the usual ideological cant. She recognises that the 'one size fits all' left wing model by definition is a busted flush for the simple reason that we are not all the same. Both parents and children deserve choice.

Josh's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 08:52

Janet --

I agree with you Janet that the jury is out but unless the government here knows exactly who to stop predatory philanthropists, corporations and corrupt or self aggrandising politicians from getting their hands on free schools, then you will end up with the problems that we have had in the United States. Problems that are getting worse and are not going away anytime soon.

Sure, Charters/Free Schools might raise educational standards for a minute number of poor kids but what about the rest of the poor kids in predmonantly poor states and cities? Charters have done very little or nothing for them and stats (and I notice that Free School/Charter supporters are obssessed with stats, both for determining "evidence" that they can twist to dispute and - worse - to guage student and teachers performance) show that most charter schools perform no better or worse than public schools.

I am an educator in New York City and have worked in both public and charter schools. In Charters, there is intolerable pressure put on kids and teachers to hit results (because of the consequences if you don't ie your school is closed down against your will and your are fired). Why? Because the Chancellor of Education cannot allow Charters to fail, because the businesses running them or making provision to them need the business, because people like Bill Gates and his Foundation are sanctified though their charitable endeavours and they have managed to set education agenda in the US. It's all about the money. Numerous kids are asked to leave (often for trumped up reaons) if they are not attaining because schools do not want their results to bring down the average. Teachers are encouraged to allow their kids to cheat in standardised tests. This is a real scandal in America and we are not talking about isolated cases. It's getting endemic. And it's all a result of American Education Reform which has incentivized putting stats above real education, corporation profits, cheating and cronyism (please google Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee on that account).

It is plain wrong to promote a charter or free school by running down or claiming that the schools they are replacing are corporationally dysfunctional and failing. Any schools sets out wanting to succeed but your level of success depends on a whole variety of factors like poverty, neighborhood, family involvement, literacy, immigration, emigration.

And it should not be a political issue. Both Democrats or Republicans were incapable of solving the real problems of public education and, oddly, it is Obama and his Race to the Top incentives that have made the situation worse. Here, I see that the Conservative government looks as if it is using the charter model to open privatisation to schools in the same way that it is doing in your National Health Service. I have also noticed that some commentators are claiming a political victory because Labour party members are supporting reform and even setting up their own school. So what? What does that prove? Is the left supposed to cry treachery? It is this divide and rule mentality that is the rot in the centre of the school reform movement. On the political point, it has also appeared to me that free school supporters (government and individuals) actively want comprehensives to fall in the gutter but the liberal/left, no matter how much they criticise reform, never ever say they actually hope a Free School to fail. To me, that looks like the centre and the left really care about kids’ education and creating a fair system for everyone.

I hope your government, in copying the New York charter model, avoids the mistakes but I somehow doubt that they have gone into it that deeply. And one last thing. African-Americans and Hispanics in New York register better than average Charter results in New York City. Why? Because there is very little desperate poverty in NYC, there are much fewer with linguistic challenges and New York City is a dynamic, multi-cultural city which pretty much epitomises aspiration and hope. The vast majority of charters failing their student body are in dirt poor areas, with high unemployment, abuse, immigration problems, hopelessness, homelessness and family neglect with little or no state support.

The question to ask is – for every high performing New York Charter/West London Free School/Mossborne Academy teaching teeny tiny number of not so poor kids, what about all the others? Who’s educating them? A run down school for the abandoned? And when every school here is a Free School or an Academy, will anything have changed much? There will still be good and bad schools. We don’t live in Finland. England and America have similar problems. Please don’t import our mistakes.

Jake's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 09:00

It's 'you are fired' not 'your are fired'.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 10:03

The comprehensive ideal is often disparaged as “one-size-fits-all” but this isn’t the case. A fully-comprehensive school will cater for all children by matching its curriculum and teaching methods to the abilities and aptitudes of individual pupils. This is what happens in Finland, the top-performing European country. If the system works so well there it can hardly be dismissed as a "left wing model" and a "busted flush".

Deborah Orr said that wealthy parents in London will not send their children to state schools. Yet London has a lower proportion of under-achieving schools than nationally. So rejecting London state schools on grounds of achievement is not borne out by the evidence.

Ms Orr said the reason she chose a private education for her son because she feared he would be bullied as she herself had been for years. For many years bullying was hidden, but now it is recognised as a serious problem. Government guidelines say that schools should have clear policies about how to deal with bullying.

So Ms Orr supports the free school initiative based on her own subjective experiences and not objective ones. There is no guarantee that bullying will not happen in a free school. Bullying is as likely to happen there as in other schools, state-funded or independent.

And as for “parents and children deserve choice” – OECD research reveals that the effect of user choice on educational outcomes is mixed, and warns that the free schools/academy conversion programme in England needs to be closely monitored if it is not to impact negatively on the already disadvantaged.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 10:14

When typing a post, especially a long one, and especially if the writer is entering text directly into the box, it is easy to make a typo. Josh's contribution is a passionate, detailed critique. You may not agree with him, Jake, but if you disagree, then engage with the argument and back up your assertions with evidence. Picking on one error is rather petty, don't you think?

Jake's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 10:33

I couldnt agree more Janet. It is incredibly petty. But that is exactly the small minded barb Josh pulled on me the other day (when I typed 'buy' instead of 'by') so I was just illustrating how ridiculious that is in the context of his own post above. Its called irony or being hoist with his own petard as Hamlet onse said. Clearly you agree with me on this and I would hope all other posters on this site refrain from such irksome immaturity from now on and stick to the substantive issues as you say.

Jake's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 10:46

And how many private schools does Finland have?

josh's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 11:41


I like what you write here and how you write it, so keep up the campaigning.

I'm not going to try and gain the moral high ground here, but I'd like to say, in my defence, that when I typed "It’s ‘by’, by the way, not ‘buy’.", I thought I was being somewhat witty with the play on words, rather than just indulging in a small minded barb.

I sincerely hope that Jake won't continue with trying to claim moral victories, since however rude I was to him on the other site, it was not entirely disproprtionate to the vitriol and menacing attitude he adopted to bloggers he went out of his way to undermine and even frighten. The manner in which he bullies and threatens one very articulate lady there would have had him banned from other sites. Perhaps Jake might like to reflect on his own appalling and unacceptable behavior on a serious minded forum before discrediting me and drawing attention from the very serious, true and informed points I think made about US school reform. I am happy to apologise for irksome immaturity.

The question pro-Free Schoolers here need to think about is - why has the AMerican model been nowhere near the success that has been claimed? Why are governments in the US and the United Kingdom concealing the failures and conflating and manipulating the successes of Charters? And why is the government here not taking steps to ensure that the built-in problems and opportunities for corrupt practices within the establishment and growth of Free Schools/Academies are being properly or legally eradicated? Everyone wants to believe that a new system is going to replace the old for better. But this is exactly what we were promised in America. All we got was a fragmented, chaotic system open to litigation and malpractice. For these reasons, it is healthy to question and ask more uncomfortable questions until you get transparency and not get bullied and shouted off the agenda.

Jake's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 14:52

That is possibly the most sanctimonious piece of BS posted on this site I have read to date, and that is saying something with the amount of holier-than-thou gibberish posted here. Further you persist in making the same basic mistake that free schools in the UK will be or are procured in the same way as charters are in the US - the process over here is neither chaotic nor fragmented while 'for profit' operators are simply not allowed to apply to open a free school in the UK.

Paul Atherton's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 17:56


Where are these so called comprehensives? One's who have the class sizes, teaching staff and freedom to address individual pupils.

I've never heard of such a thing from the teachers I know, the parents I know or my own experiences as both a pupil and a parent.

It sounds wonderful - did you or your children go to such a place?

Jake's picture
Fri, 09/09/2011 - 14:14

They exist at the end of the rainbow, next to the fairies, pixie dust and pots of gold.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 09/09/2011 - 15:10

Here's one example: the Deepings School near Peterborough. Latest GCSE results 93% A*-C (up 30% on score in 2007). Excellent school, rated "Outstanding" by Ofsted. Best ever A level results including two students going to Oxbridge. What's remarkable is that it is fully comprehensive, drawing all its pupils from the Deepings and surrounding villages. and it thrives in Lincolnshire, a selective county.

I suppose critics will say that this comprehensive is unique - all the rest are "bog standard".

In Finland, all the schools are fully-comprehensive and teachers are expected to deal with pupils of all abilities. Assessment is continuous and formative - it's used to design subject content and methods of delivery. It's an excellent system - not "pixie dust" at all.

Jake's picture
Fri, 09/09/2011 - 15:24

Thats all very well and good but we arent in Finland are we? One reason they are top of the PISA tables is that they do not have private schools which leads to a more egalitarian educational outcome - both rich and poor go to the same schools. We should be grateful to people who promote free schools as they seek to improve education in this country from within the state system while sadly the private school sector is not going to disappear anytime soon over here.

Mr Chas's picture
Fri, 09/09/2011 - 08:45

Janet, are you the lady who spoke up for LA schools at the Vauxhall Association meeting a while back ?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 09/09/2011 - 16:31

No, I'm not.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 09/09/2011 - 16:41

"Rich and poor go to the same schools". Exactly. That's what comprehensive education is. Unfortunately, those who promote free schools, including Rachel Wolf and Nick Gibb, the school's minister, make great play about the fact that well-off parents can pay for a "better" education at English private schools but poor parents cannot do this. So, the free schools, they say, will be like private ones ie "better" than all the rest. This is grossly insulting to teachers in the majority of schools in the UK. According to Nick Gibb, UK private schools have been judged best in the world by the OECD. I have twice asked Mr Gibb to provide a link to the evidence but he has declined to do so. In fact, the OECD said that once socio-economic background was taken into account, UK state-funded schools performed better than private ones.

Jake's picture
Fri, 09/09/2011 - 17:05

The point I was making is that we dont live in Finland and the UK private school sector isnt going to implode any time soon, so its no good carping on about how great Finland is because that model can never be replicated in this country.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 09/09/2011 - 17:16

Unfortunately, Jake, you are right. Finland's comprehensive system, where teachers are highly-trained in subject matter and teaching methods, and expected to tailor their teaching to the aptitudes and abilities of all their students, is unlikely to be replicated in England because the government, its supporters and sections of the media ("Bring back Grammar Schools") are hostile to such a fair, universal system. Instead, they rubbish English state education (except academies and free schools)and demoralise the teachers who work in community (LA supported) schools.

Jake's picture
Fri, 09/09/2011 - 17:25

I think the real blocking point is none of those things - its the private school sector which presents the single biggest problem to an egalitarian education model.

O. Spencer's picture
Fri, 09/09/2011 - 20:48

Janet - only 4% of the pupils at the Deepings are on FSM.

Now, as we both know from debates elsewhere, FSM isn't necessarily the one definitive measure we should use to determine if a school has a truly mixed intake..

However, you can bet that % on FSM at free schools will be carefully monitored and regular contributors will be the first to point out schools that are below average on that score. I can picture with almost prophetic clarity the comments scathing that a new free school only has 4% on FSM.. The Deepings also has a smaller number of SEN students.

Now, is that because its catchment area just happens to be full of socio-economically advantaged families? Does the school self-select out the poor kids? Does it have a culture favouring the middle classes? ("No, don't be so silly, it's a comprehensive" I hear everyone cry)

These are exactly the same questions that would be asked of an Academy/ free school, yet they are never asked about comprehensives, because comprehensives are uniquely virtuous and free schools can of course only be middle class instruments of entrenching privilege, so the logic goes.

What of the fact that WLFS will allocate a proportion of places through a lottery?

The school down the road from The Deepings - St. Guthlac, has more than double the number on FSM and SEN pupils. Such a massive variation within a few miles, yet The Deepings is presented as your typical inclusive comprehensive.

Melissa Benn's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 00:32

Janet, I have just watched a recent interview with the Finnish education minister and have been struck once again by the many good things in their system. Children start school much later, so they arrive ready to learn, rather than exhausted by prematurely early cramming: teachers are highly respected and highly trained: as you say assessment is much more flexible and personalised: rich and poor go through the same system: no learner is allowed to be left behind.

Of course, we have a very different society, with far more inequality, lingering social snobbery and some very powerful vested interests in education - these may, in fact, be the main stumbling block to genuine reform - but I see no reason why many elements of this system couldn't be incorporated into our own.

Oh, and one more thing: I was talking to an expert on international systems last night ( his specialist area was maths) and he pointed out that in Finland the stated aim of their educational system is, in part, to promote social justice. That is one of their overarching goals. I shall source that claim, obviously. But that seems to be a very important aim and one that leads in the opposite direction to the efforts of the current coalition who believe that social justice is best promoted, apparently, by giving the poor access to a private style education within the state system, even if it is only through a tiny number of schools and even if, within this small pool of the new schools, the main beneficiaries may turn out to be already relatively advantaged.

In other words, there is no overarching vision, no real plan for educational improvement for all children, no plan or conception of education as part of the promotion of the greater good.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 09:12

The introduction to the OECD document re the Finnish educational system says:

"Finland is one of the world’s leaders in the academic performance of its
secondary school students, a position it has held for the past decade.
This top performance is also remarkably consistent across schools. Finnish
schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background,
socio-economic status or ability."

and later in the report it says:

"...the idea of the comprehensive school emerged in Finland as part of a larger movement in the 1960s for more social and economic equality, and over the
next two decades the Finns adopted many features of the Swedish welfare state."

One crucial factor which is highlighted by the OECD is the slow pace of educational change in Finland. Indeed, OECD titled the document "Finland: Slow and Steady Reform for Consistently High Results" and it stresses the need for a careful evolution over many years based on consensus. The reforms "are not the result of bold new policies or big programmatic initiatives that one can identify with a particular government of political leader".

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 10:14

The St Guthlac School in Crowland is not a comprehensive school but a co-educational secondary modern. Lincolnshire is a county which retains selection. High-ability pupils from Crowland can be selected to attend a single sex grammar school ten miles away at Spalding.

St Guhlac School has now been closed. It will reopen on 1 September 2011 as part of the University Academy Holbeach which will eventually be sited in Holbeach fifteen miles away through the fens. Consequently, there will be no secondary school provision in Crowland. This had led to the formation of Education4Crowland who are campaigning for the retention of secondary education in Crowland. If this fails, campaigners will investigate the option of opening a free school.

It's true that Crowland is only a few miles down the road from Deeping. But this is to forget the geography of the fens. The road between Deeping and Crowland runs next to the River Welland and is actually higher than the river. It's a difficult road in good conditions as it's built on an embankment and has a tendency to sink. In winter it's treacherous - cars have been known to leave the road and end up in the river. It's not a journey that many parents would wish their children to endure daily in a school bus.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 10:24

O Spencer, you are right about the low number of pupils on free school meals at Deeping. However, I was asked to provide evidence of a comprehensive school which provided a good education to the full ability range. It had to be one of which I had personal knowledge otherwise I would be unable to judge whether the comprehensive’s intake was skewed towards the high ability end, or was merely an exam factory: teaching to the test, “gaming” and ignoring non cognitive skills. It’s difficult in Lincolnshire to find a real comprehensive ie a school far enough away from a grammar school not to lose students to a selective school. Deeping is one such although there are still some Deeping students who travel to nearby Bourne Grammar.

Stamford pupils are particularly disadvantaged in this respect. Until September 2011, Lincolnshire County Council paid for selected Stamford pupils to attend the Stamford Endowed [Independent] schools thereby siphoning off high-ability pupils from the town’s only secondary school, Queen Eleanor School. A mile away from Stamford in Rutland is a popular comprehensive which takes many of its pupils from Stamford. Queen Eleanor School has 11% pupils on free school meals, 7% with statements of Special Education Needs, and 27.4% with special needs without statements. Despite not being many parents’ first choice, Queen Eleanor has always provided a good education to the full range of ability and this year got its best ever examination results.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 10:26

O Spencer – I take your point about the low number of children on free school meals at Deeping. You have highlighted the difficulty in judging schools without looking at the context. I chose Deeping as an example because it’s a good school and it’s that rare thing in Lincolnshire – a true comprehensive. So, if Deeping is rejected as an example of an inclusive comprehensive because of its low number of pupils on free school meals, where to look for other examples? My first choice would be Stamford’s Queen Eleanor School (see above post), but, like so many Lincolnshire schools, it’s not strictly speaking a comprehensive although it behaves like the best of its type. So where else? I don’t actually have to look far. There are over 24,000 schools which match the comprehensive criteria: catering well for the full range of pupils, inclusive and mixed ability. Each has its own individual characteristics and cannot be described as one-size-fits all. They are state primary schools.

Jake's picture
Mon, 12/09/2011 - 11:43

And of course Melissa Labour did a 'stand up' job with education where after 13 years in power the UK was seen to be sliding down the PISA rankings with our system stagnating at best. Not even Janet could refute those OECD stats. Gove has a very real plan to improve all our children via school transition to academy status while further driving choice and quality through the free school programme. And some of us are still wondering why you didn't feel your own childrens local school was good enough such that you felt the need to resort to private tuition come exam time?

One could argue that Finland works because of its totality and overarching strategy. So incorporating only some elements into our system would not really help would it? As I said above - until all public schools are abolished it is pointless carping on about 'wouldn't it be great if we were like Finland'. Lets all start by lobbying for removal of private school charitable status. Now that's a campaign I'd even join you on.

Davis Lewis's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 15:01

I agree with you Jake about the piecemeal adoption of the Finnish method. None of our parties are ever going to make those overarching changes to allow for the adoption of a Finnis model so I wonder why do they even talk about it.

Davis Lewis's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 15:04

Another impediment is our aversion to paying taxes. Finland is a high taxation economy that invests heavily in its public services including education of course we are all about paying as little tax as possible and no UK government will have the balls to say 'we are going to raise taxes to improve the quality and quantity' of our public services.

Jake's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 15:18

Indeed. I may be wrong but I can't ever recall a party getting elected on the promise of 'we will make your poorer'.

Davis Lewis's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 20:57

Well we have governments that have been elected on many a false promise. We all know that manifestos are not worth the paper they are written. Paying more tax does not make a society poorer after all the money is spent on our public services. I am living for the day when a party may try and win this argument rather than pander to the lowest common human denominator i.e. as long as I am OK I do not give a damn about any one else's welfare.

ChampagneSocialistNetwork's picture
Thu, 15/09/2011 - 18:04

Well Said! I hate this holier than thou hypocrisy. as someone who comes from a single-parent home & raised on a housing estate. I was denied accesss to the best Comprehensive schools near me all because of my address postcode & their tiny radius catchment policy. Even when I appealed in year 9 due to severe constant bullying I was getting that affected my studies in my "inclusive" comprehensive far away they still said No. Like many I was left to rot they only began to give a toss when I was deemed *key-marginal (borderline grades) in my last year therefore they needed to make sure we got atleast 5 C's to boost the school's already low 5 A*-C GCSES results. At school saw I the fate of others who had such potential wasted away. Looking back at it now it really was tragic.

Nearer to home I had the choice of going to the schools the privileged (especially champagne socialists) using the catchment trick or private schooling did not want to send their children. I don't blame them they were (and are) awful! one of them being a school where only 38% of pupils get 5 decent GCSEs including maths and English. Yet Ofstead gave this school a *Good rating "with the potential of being outstanding". Ofstead is a joke.
This figure was probally lower when I was 11 looking for schools nearly 10 years ago. So had to go to a bog-standard (albeit theoretically not as bad) Comps in two different boroughs far-away, because the choice of excellence or even anything half decent nearby was not available when you haven't got the cash. I should of used the Catholic Church as a safety valve but it did not occur to me how bog-standard the "inclusive" Comprehensive schools really are.

How is that fair? selection in life is inevitable but you can either have it through ability or a defacto one by wealth. Its clear which one LSN supports.

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