Who really benefits from free schools is still “open to question”, says FullFact

Janet Downs's picture
The opening of 55 new free schools this week has reignited the controversy about who will really benefit from them.

FullFact quoted the Department for Education (DfE) which described the first wave of 24 free schools as follows:

“Over a third (9 schools) are located in the 20% most deprived communities."

"Half the schools (12 schools) are located in the 30% most deprived communities”.

But research for the Guardian indicated that: "that the majority of free schools are being established in wealthier areas…Research shows that the 10-minute commuting area around the first wave of free schools is dominated by middle-class households, appearing to undermine coalition claims that they are empowering working class families.”

FullFact says that the different conclusions were caused by different methodology. The Guardian based their figures on 10-minute commuting areas while the DfE looked at the “relative deprivation (measured by the Indices of Multiple Deprivation) of the immediate surroundings of each free school (known as the Lower Super Output Area - or LSOA).”

The above data relates only to the first wave of free schools and is, therefore, already out-of-date. However, the FT (4/09/12) suggested that more up-to-date statistics were available. The headline said: “Bulk of free schools open in poor areas.” The article claimed that 30 of the 79 free schools (first and second wave) were “in the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods, measured by the number of benefit claims.” The article’s author used the LSOAs as a geographical measure then looked up the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index value for each LSOA. This enabled the FT to work out how many free schools were in the poorest fifth of the LSOAs. The headline is, in any case, inaccurate. The “bulk” surely means majority. If the FT’s analysis is correct then 49 of the 79 free schools would not be in poor areas – the headline would be more accurate if it said, “Bulk of free schools not in poor areas.”

None of these analyses, however, shows how many disadvantaged pupils - those claiming or eligible to claim Free School Meals (FSM) – actually attend the free schools. The figures for the first wave of free schools suggest that the majority contain a lower proportion of FSM pupils than is present in the local area.

FullFact pointed out that the composition of pupils in free schools may change as the new ones open and the first wave pass their first anniversaries. It concluded that, “The social composition of the 79 free schools now open is therefore an open question depending upon what you measure. It's also one where the results are rapidly changing, as new schools are opened and more pupils start to study there.”

Free schools, like academies, can prioritise FSM pupils attracting the Pupil Premium. However, it remains to be seen how many free schools (or academies) will do this. The Schools Adjudicator has already censured two first-wave free schools, the Maharishi Free School and Langley Hall Primary Academy, for listing fee-paying independent schools as feeder schools – this is not allowed under the Code as it would give an unfair advantage to those parents who can afford school fees and deter those who can’t.

When pupils in free schools begin taking mandatory tests then information about the composition of each cohort will be available on the DfE website. Then it will be clear if they are taking their fair proportion of FSM children.

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