Free schools tend to offer “classical model of education” and don’t set up in disadvantaged areas, research has found

Janet Downs's picture
Do free schools mainly service middle-class parents worried about the “social mix” of local primaries? Or do they appeal to parents attracted by the “trimmings” of an independent school? Or, as education secretary, Michael Gove claims, are they driving social mobility in disadvantaged areas?

Dr Rob Higham, whose research is summarised in Leadership Focus, attempted to answer these questions. He scrutinised 226 of the 312 free school proposals made so far and interviewed a sample comprising 50 groups which represented those which the Government originally encouraged to apply (parents, faith groups, teachers, charities but not education institutions such as existing schools or academy chains). This was not easy because the DfE has refused a Freedom of Information request to publish details of unsuccessful free school proposals.

The research found that a free school application is more likely to succeed if it comes from middle-class professionals proposing academic schools. The applications more likely to be turned down are those which plan vocational schools in the most disadvantaged areas. Higham suggests this is an “unintended consequence” of the Government’s expectation that free schools will succeed in the league table stakes.

Higham also suggests that the free school application process favours professional applicants over those from a non-professional background. Several rejected non-professional applicants felt that an absence of professional people in their group was a factor in their rejection.

Mark Lehan, principal of Bedford Free School, disputes Higham’s findings saying he found “absolutely no difference” in the interest the New Schools Network gave to different groups. However, he did concede that it might have been harder for his group to co-opt people with experience of accounts, planning and so on if he had been a minority ethnic parent.

The research so far suggests that the most likely proposals to succeed are those for traditional academic schools with the trappings of a private school or schools in areas of above average disadvantage which stress high academic achievement.

Higham says his research is “work in progress” and he will continue to investigate both successful and, crucially, rejected free school applications. He also wants to discover what the rejected groups do next – some of those he interviewed told him that they will have to find a Government favoured partner, such as an educational consultancy company or academy chain.

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FJ Murphy's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 10:17

I hope some free schools are set up in Rotherham, then they will be free of the malign influence of Joyce Thacker, the 'Strategic Director of Children's and Young People's Services' (sic) who is possibly trying to weed out politically unreliable teachers from the schools there. Given a choice between Toby Young, and that awful women, I would submit my school to Toby Young any day. Do you understand that this is why some of us support free schools, as LEA influence can be so malign?

Andy V's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 12:01

Finbar, you sound as though you have direct experience of Ms Thacker or are you basing your comment on the weekend's news re fostering?

FJ Murphy's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 12:31

My experience of listening to her justifying her shocking decision.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 12:50

In which case I would have to disagree. As throroughly questionable as it is the fostering decision is a wholly different issue to that raised by Janet and I would suggest is insufficient evidence upon which to base your comments.

I cannot say she was or is a close associate but having worked in Rotherham schools for several years and worked alongside her on a few groups prior to her elevation I would venture that you have the wrong end of the stick and are doing her an injustice.

FJ Murphy's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 13:02

The mentality which her behaviour has exposed is deeply disturbing.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 12:22

Janet, thank for sharing this. Having read the article I would venture that rather than 'conceding' that an ethnic minority parent group might have found things harder he 'speculated' that it might have been.

In terms of the research and academic v vocational it is my perception that irrespective of the type of school one is reviewing the core subjects remain En, Ma and Sci and as such it is something of a strawman situation for Dr Higham to suggest that this represents a delineation between successful and unsuccessful applications relating to subject preferences. Indeed, with the growth of Studio Schools it might be argued that this impacts negatively on the likely success of vocational Free Schools. That said, the Studio Schools still have En, Ma and sci as core timetable subjects - it is the foundation subjects that make way for the work-bassed/work-related learning opportunities.

Just a thought ot two ...

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 16:07

Andy - I think you might be right over my use of "conceded". Nevertheless, Mark Lehain did say:

"We [his group] went out and found people through friends of friends and word of mouth. I don't think it is impossible to find people to fill these skills sets, but maybe that is me being middle class and it would be harder if I was a parent from a minority ethnic background."

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 16:26

Andy - I'm not sure that Dr Higham is building a strawman. He looked at a large number of free school proposals and found a pattern - that groups proposing an academic school were more likely to succeed than those proposing a vocational one.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 16:53

Janet, I acknowledge that but he did not look at the wider view which would have factored in the Studio Schools. I am saying that the later are likely to have an impact on the balance between Free School curriculum choices. In addition, and albeit not trumpeted as loudly as Free Schools, Studio Schools are also part of the flagship genre in education.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 16:57

Janet, he did say that. However, I would contend that his speculation is flawed in that it implies that ethnic minority groups lack the drive, know-how and apptitude to succeed which is seriously close to institutionalised discrimination through to patronising and condescending. After-all one only has to look at the so called white and blue collar professions to see a substantial number of highly qualified and eminnently experience people from ethnic minorities. Put another way I found his comment almost crass.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 17:02

Andy - looking at Studio Schools would have been outside the remit. Dr Higham was researching free school proposals from groups other than existing schools or academy chains. He wasn't looking at Studio Schools, academies or UTCs - none of which are free schools (although technically free schools are academies).

"Free schools" are listed as a separate category on the DfE Edubase database of all state schools. And it is this category which is the focus of Dr Higham's research - not Studio Schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 17:14

Andy - I agree that the comment was crass and patronising. It implied that parents from a minority ethnic background would be less likely to find professional help than middle-class people like Lehan. And the more I think about it, the more I agree with you that my use of "conceded" was also inept.

Leaving Mark Lehan to one side, Dr Higham found that groups from a non-professional background were more likely to be turned down. Yet Gove's rhetoric implied that any parent group could set up a free school. This only seems to be true, according to Dr Higham's research, if the group contains professional parents.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 17:33

Dr Higham's finding can be read many ways and for me the 2 most likely interpretations could be (a) 'any parent group' composed of a cross section of the community or (b) only professional people have the nous to organise and drive setting up and running a free school. An interersting conundrum ... :)

Andy V's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 17:39

Janet, thank you for clarifying the scope of the research and narrowness of free school definition. I say this because I had it in my mind that although not explicity stated, studio schools were an extension of the free school category. Other than curriculum differences they like free schools are new start-up, independent and allegedly outside the national curriculum, whereas academies are either the merger of 2 or more schools, fresh starts or converters (oh, and former fee paying converters).

All that said, and accepting that studio schools may well be outside thew remit in relation to the curriculum they do represent a potentially significant reason why vocational free schools may fare so poorly compared to academic free school start-ups.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 13:12

I cannot help but feel that either your words or thought process are misplaced. Face value it was an truly awful decision but lets await the outcome of enquiries. It is worth remembering that when thinking child protection those charged with responsibility all too often fall foul of 'damned if you do and damned if you don't'. So lets just hold fire.

More importantly, this does not disract from the fact that the issue has nothing to do with Free Schooling therefore lacks relevance to the top thread.

FJ Murphy's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 13:39

It is relevant, because free schools are attacked because they are free from local authority control, from control of Joyce Thacker, for example. Neither my words or thought processes are misplaced, I just don't agree with you, but, as a typical LSN supporter, you have to attack those who disagree with you. Your nonchalance in the face of the shocking behaviour of this seemingly bigoted woman is very disturbing. As you say, however, let us wait for the results of the whitewash, I mean enquiry.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 26/11/2012 - 14:38

Finbar, Finbar, just who is attacking who here. All I have said is that having has experience of working with Mrs Thacker I cannot agree your position and that it will be better to await the outcomes of both enquiries. By all means be sceptical of the internal RMBC enquiry but the DFE are hardly going to be biased.

Your position is based on soundbite interview not the facts. The latter are unknown outside those involved. Her descision re fostering cannot be taken wholesale as indicative of her overall judgement or balance. Forgive me but your last outburst was far too close to the troll-like stuff I have to endure from several on LSN. Track my interactions and you'll see that I am far from one of the LSN gang.

Toby Young's picture
Tue, 04/12/2012 - 23:57

Why have you put inverted commas around "social mix" in your first sentence, Janet? The implication is that the "middle class parents" who set up free schools are racists – that they use the phrase "social mix" euphemistically and what they really object to about the local primary schools is that they contain too many black and brown children.

This is objectionable on so many levels it's hard to know where to begin. For one thing, it overlooks all the minority ethnic groups that have themselves set up free schools, i.e. you're making the same "crass and patronising" mistake that you accuse Mark Lehain of making and assuming that the only "middle class parents" capable of setting up free schools are white.

Another assumption you're making is that the "classical model" of education adhered to by the "middle class parents" who set up free schools doesn't appeal to minority ethnic parents or working class parents. After all, if it does, then the free schools will attract the same "social mix" as the local primaries and that would never do.

Well, I've got news for you, Janet. Turns out the "classical model" is every bit as attractive to these parents as it is to white, middle class parents. Who would have thought it, eh? Incredibly – and I know this is going to blow your mind – small class sizes, strong discipline and academic rigour don't just appeal to people of one class and one ethnicity. They appeal to all parents.

Take the West London Free School as a case in point, currently the most over-subscribed state secondary in Hammersmith and Fulham. Admittedly, not everyone on the original steering committee that set up the school was white, but we were all middle class professionals and we certainly subscribe to the "classical model". Latin is mandatory in KS3, all the children study three separate sciences, every child is expected to do at least eight GCSEs, including a language, class sizes of 24, zero tolerance of disruptive behaviour, etc, etc.

But blow me, Janet, not every child at the school is white, British and middle class. We must be doing something wrong – because, after all, our aim was to avoid the "social mix" of the local community schools. Of the 240 children currently at the school, approximately 50 per cent have English as an additional language, 40 per cent are minority ethnic and, as of this year, 28 per cent are on free school meals. (In our current Year 7 cohort, the percentage on FSM is 32 per cent.)

Where did it all go so pear-shaped, eh Janet? What a bloody disaster. It's back to the drawing board for my little group of white supremacist Nazis.

No, wait, hang on a's exactly what we want. Hard to believe, but when we said we wanted the "social mix" at our school to reflect the social and ethnic diversity of the local area we weren't actually lying! Indeed, in my experience every free school group says exactly the same thing and they're not lying either.

Take your racist slurs and... well, I won't say what I want to say Janet because it's too rude. But really. You should know better.

(Note to Socialist Workers Party and Anti-Academies Alliance trolls reading this comment: You can quote some of what I've written out of context and use it to imply that I really am a racist. Whoopee! You should have hours of fun with that.)

Andy V's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 00:52

May I suggest you take the trouble to read the follow-up comments to the opening piece by Janet before you do the elephant in teh china shop routine.

You may also like to note that in terms of language currency 'social mix' no longer carries an exclusive undertone of racial mix. In today's useage it also extends - rightly or wrongly - to social-class mix with its inherent nuance of snobbery.

If anyone was implying racism in the cited piece of work it was clearly Mr Lehan (see Janet's para 5).

I am also confused by your righteousness set against your comments about wanting to set up your free school because you didn't like the positive social values of the existing school(s) in your locality, and I quote, “It is the ethos and the curriculum of Acton High School that I don’t particularly like. Schools are now required to indoctrinate children with positive social values.”

I assume from this Mr Young that you stand 4-square against the Conservative concept of the ‘Big Society’. I also deduce from this quote that you’d much prefer schools to exercise an ethos of anarchic values or perhaps one espousing personal greed or just exercises in pointless valueless learning by rote and obedience?

Words have a life of their own Mr Young and they have a habit of catching their author out! To borrow from an old saying, perhaps you'd like to replace some glass in your house because you shouldn't throw stones when others can pick them up and throw them back.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 10:44

What an extraordinary post, Toby. The reason I put speech marks round the words "social mix" is because it was a direct quotation from a "Leadership Focus" article which summarised Professor Higham's research into free school proposals. It's a convention that when a writer is quoting someone then the words should appear in quotation marks and the source given. There is a link to the original article in my opening piece. The full citation is:

Young, Susan, November/December 2012, "Not much of a Change" in "Leadership Focus", published by NAHT, pp40-43

The word "racist" doesn't occur in Young's article although "white" appeared once. It was referring to the colour of "shirts".

Toby Young's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 00:59

So we're not just racists? We're racists *and* snobs? Thanks for clarifying that, Andy.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 07:42

If you are as determined as you appear to be to collect personal labels then you may wish to consider adding being paranoidly obtuse to your collection.

Typical of your journalistic training you dodge the difficult issues and cherry pick thoes you feel can bring you a warm fuzzy feeling to make you feel good about youself.

Janet highlighted a piece of academic work and underscored sections of it in the traditional way "using quotation marks" and you take it personally. Hmmm, a psychologist might find that interesting. I similarly cite a contributor to the research and likewise you take that personally. I think perhaps the pressures are getting you and a rest break maybe in order.

Before you go dare I push you for a word or three on the issue of your not being in favour of "positive social values" in schools?

FJ Murphy's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 07:57

What are the "positive social values"? Sometimes they are very politically contentious.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 09:32

I think you'd best refer that question to Mr Young. He appears to be the resident expert on the subject. But a key indicator of meaning for me is "positive".

FJ Murphy's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 19:44

I have had a look at Acton High School's website to find out about its values. The values are largely unobjectionable, if somewhat platitudinous, as one always finds with such things. The very lengthy 'Diversity, Equality and Community Cohesion' policy contains the usual rather PC statements and aims, most of which are harmless, but some of which could be interpreted in a rather partisan way to influence teaching in a fashion that might lack objectivity in certain subjects. For example, "enable all pupils to study the political, social and economic reasons for racial, sexual and other inequalities across the world." I can quite imagine that this could be taught in a very controversial and biased way, and I wonder how it would be appreciated by Muslim pupils if the question of sexual inequalities in the Arab and Muslim world were tackled? This is what alarms many reasonable people who don't want their children to be brainwashed. Respect for others regardless of irrelevant attributes is to be encouraged, but I fear that there is a badly disguised political agenda here.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 19:51

It is of course your perogative to interpret such things in your own way but I would venture that at the heart of what you suggest is pure speculation as to how these values might be covered in lessons.

Incidentally Finbar, based on the language and sentence construction you use would it be outrageous to suggest that you and Toby Young are one and the same person?

FJ Murphy's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 20:12

There are various ways in which the values could be taught, very different ways indeed. Given the vocabulary used in the policy statements, I feel that a certain sort of agenda is being advanced.
I am not Toby Young, I am Finbar Murphy, as I do not feel the need to disguise my identity. What is the nature of my language and sentence structure that resulted in your incorrect inference?

KL's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 23:24

"Higham also suggests that the free school application process favours professional applicants over those from a non-professional background. Several rejected non-professional applicants felt that an absence of professional people in their group was a factor in their rejection."

A quick point here. Is that paragraph meant to be a negative point in the current free school application process? Doesn't it actually make more sense to have some professionals involved in the application process, whatever industry they may be from (education, finance, or journalism for example)?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 08:06

KL - Gove heavily pushed the idea that free schools could be opened by any group especially parents. When Higham investigated he found that such groups tended to be rejected unless they already contained professionals.

There is, of course, nothing to prevent non-professional groups from hiring professional help with their proposals (although this costs money). Such help will, of course, be essential once the school is up-and-running. Academies and free schools have to hire their own professional help (accountants, lawyers and so on) while local authority schools can rely on their LAs for this back room support.

Andy V's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 08:14

Janet, What you say is accurate in theory but the situation with Local Authority schools isn't quite as cut and dried as that. They have the opportunity to avail themselves of LA back room support but for the vast majority of LAs this is not obligatory as schools have the right to opt in/out of the Service Level Agreements governing each category of service. Add to that the fact that the back room support in some LAs is held in distain and shunned by schools. Thus many schools cherry pick their services from their LA.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 08:44

Andy - thanks for explaining the LA back room role in more detail. I had in mind services such as pay roll which is done by LAs for all LA schools because teachers are technically employed by the LA. If I were a head, I would be glad that the LA had relieved me of that responsibility - more time to concentrate on education.

But, as ever, the situation is more complex that my short sentence implied. I'm trying (really trying) to keep my comments short. But brevity can result in generalisation.

Andy V's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 09:23

Janet - Apologies, I only really intended to highlight that the picture in the LA sector was more of a patchwork quilt rather than compulsory harmony across the piece. Payroll is the least and cheapest of the time sponges. Indeed, a half decent in-house team can do very easily without it being a draw on the Head's time.

Tubby Isaacs's picture
Wed, 24/04/2013 - 23:57

Jesus, what a clown Young is.

Someone quotes some academic research and he rushes in and bangs on about his school? Will he ever realize it's not all about him?

Then he clears off when realizes he's gone off at half cock, and that you said "middle class" not "white middle class" and "social mix" doesn't just refer to race.

Peter Judge's picture
Thu, 25/04/2013 - 04:23

Sometimes this website gives the impression that it exists simply as an anti reform, and, in particular, anti Toby Young diatribe.

At least Mr Young has got off his backside and worked tirelessly in pursuit of his convictions.

FJ Murphy's picture
Thu, 25/04/2013 - 06:40

Not sometimes, but always. Most LSN contributors are obsessed with attacking Michael Gove and Toby Young and opposing any reform of anything to do with state education. They are certainly rattled by what is going on.

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