Free schools, were supposed to be shock troops which would “smash through complacency
” and encourage other schools to improve results.
In retrospect, this was a foolish claim to make and unfair on free schools. It was unrealistic to expect a group of newly-opened, untried and untested schools to all be outstanding. In reality, free schools as a group would be much like other schools: some good, some satisfactory (although that’s now redefined as “requires improvement”) and some poor.
Eleven of the twenty-four first-wave free schools have now been inspected by Ofsted. The results are as follows*:
Seven are good;
Three “require improvement”;
One, the Discovery New School
, has been judged “inadequate”.
According to Ofsted, “too many pupils” were likely to leave Discovery New School, a Montessori primary school in Crawley, “without being able to read and write properly.” Ofsted warned that if this was not tackled quickly, “pupils are unlikely to flourish in their secondary schools and future lives.”
Ofsted had received several complaints from parents about the leading and management of the school. Ofsted upheld these concerns. It also said that in September 2012 an advisor from Department for Education (DfE) had identified serious weaknesses at the school but these had not been addressed by the school’s senior leaders.
So, in September 2012 a DfE advisor found serious failings. The school was allowed time to put these right. Compare this with the treatment of “failing” community primary schools like Roke Primary
. Ofsted judged it inadequate and despite opposition the school’s being handed over to the Harris academy chain. And Downhills
school was judged to be improving but three months later Ofsted returned and decided it wasn’t improving at all. Downhills was rated “inadequate” and has been handed over to Harris. Other schools have been forced to become academies amid claims of bullying
by brokers commissioned by the DfE to persuade “failing” schools to convert.
This raises many questions. Will DfE brokers descend on Discovery New School and persuade it to join an academy chain? Or will the school be allowed time to sort itself out? If so, why are community schools deemed to be “failing” not allowed the same leeway? Will the DfE offer the free school support to improve which it does not allow “failing” community schools?
Free schools, like academy conversion, are not silver bullets for school improvement. They divert money and resources away from other schools. The National Audit Office has already found that £1 billion was overspent on the academies programme. Perhaps its future report into the establishment of free schools will also find similar financial failings.
*Reporting these Ofsted results does not imply agreement with Ofsted findings.