First secondary free school judged Outstanding while one praised by school ministers Requires Improvement

Janet Downs's picture
Dixons Trinity Academy, Bradford, is the first secondary free school to be judged Outstanding. Inspectors praised the academy for its “exceptional leadership”; staff “dedication and professionalism” and “good use of partnerships”.

The Academy is sponsored by the Dixons Multi Academy Trust whose support was significant in supporting the school’s development, Ofsted wrote. Inspectors noted the academy’s senior leaders had been recruited from within the Dixons group – this suggests they had the necessary experience before being expected to run a school. Luke Sparkes, the headteacher, was previously assistant principal at Dixons Allerton.

Bedford Free School was praised by ex-schools minister Lord Hill before it even opened. He said he hoped to see it become a “successful flagship for the Free Schools programme”. When Education Secretary Michael Gove visited he cited an unpublished report from Department for Education “experts” which said teaching was of “a strong quality”.

But Ofsted didn’t agree: the school Requires Improvement. Teaching is not “consistently good” although it had improved since September 2013. The number of exclusions had “reduced significantly”. This raises the question about how many pupils had earlier been excluded if the number was high enough to reduce “significantly”.

Inspectors said leadership was good and leadership of teaching had improved since September 2013 when an assistant headteacher was appointed. This again raises a question: if leadership of teaching has improved this academy year, what was it like in the school’s first year?

On the first anniversary of the opening of Bedford Free School, its principal Mark Lehain wrote on Conservative Home about the “incredible academic progress” made by pupils. But Ofsted did not agree:

“Students do not sustain good progress within and between subjects often enough.”

The “incredible “progress, based on Key Stage 3 teacher assessments, was further thrown into doubt when inspectors said teacher assessments were “sometimes too generous”.

The Impact Assessment for Bedford Free School said the school would have a moderate to high impact on four neighbouring schools and warned that even if a small number of pupils went to Bedford Free School it could “threaten the long-term viability of these schools”.

In a blog reproduced by the New Schools Network, the taxpayer-funded charity which helps free school proposers, Lehain defended schools opening where there are already surplus places. Local provision might not be “appropriate or of sufficient quality”, he wrote. It would be back to the bad old days when LAs managed supply, he warned, if local authorities (LAs) decided where new schools were needed.

But LAs are supposed to manage school place supply by law – you might expect a headteacher to know that.

NOTE: All Ofsted reports downloadable from Ofsted website.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 31/03/2014 - 20:28

I must say I found this post quite fascinating. It is of course always sad when a school fails to meet expectations and the current Ofsted framework can be quite brutal. However this Bedford Free School was the subject of quite a lot of debate on this site before its opening, and I took part in several debates with Mark Lehain. Like many of his fellow free school founders, he was always supremely confident that his school would both meet a need and outperform any local rivals, almost as if its "free" status would confer magical powers. I think this proves what some of us suggested at the time, namely that actually running a school with pupils in it, and sustaining improvement over time, is much harder that writing a prospectus, taking part in TV and radio debates and projecting what you think might happen in the future. I hope for his pupils' take that he manages to make the necessary improvements, but also that he might reflect a bit on whether the grandiose claims of the so called free school pioneers have been borne out in practice?

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 31/03/2014 - 20:57

Fiona, it is good that you and Janet make clear how little the rhetorical pronouncements of many of the unquestioning supporters of free schools and academies count when the system does its thing. As you say, however, the fate of the children and young people involved in this reckless experiment is what matters most. We would prefer to be learning that all pupils are getting the best they can. This, for me, is where the questions begin about the present reforms.

How important is it that all schools are locally accountable? Is it fair to have a system where so many differences exist, leaving some pupils to flourish while others decline? Is it acceptable that the direction of education change, and with it the fate of ALL pupils, is tied to the outcome at the ballot box every five years?

The old system had its shortcomings but accountability was traceable and open to local oversight. It didn't always produce the best outcomes but parents and school leaders knew where the buck stopped. With a fraction of the funding that has been thrown by successive governments into the restructuring of schools, those LA's that needed a rocket up the proverbials could have been developed to match the standards of the best.

One still has to hope this will come about when the campaign to remove party politics from education governance has been successful.

Alistair Wilson's picture
Tue, 01/04/2014 - 06:35

So far this year, 50% of the Free schools opened in 2012 have been graded Requires Improvement, or Inadequate by Ofsted. Only 12 reports have been published so far, and this ratio is hopefully likely to improve as the other 43 move through the system. However will the ratio eventually be worse than the 25% of schools opened in 2011 graded less than good. Even if it improves, 4% of the 2011 cohort were graded inadequate - and this was only Discovery New School - closing this week. Already 5% of the 2012 cohort are inadequate, and only Al-Madinah has been partially shut.

Grades so far are - Dixon Trinity - Outstanding;
Alban City School, Bolingbroke Academy, Steiner Frome, City of P'boro Special Sch, Gateway Primary Free - Good;

Bedford Free, CET Primary Tower Hamlets, CET Primary Westminster - Require improvement;

Al-Madinah, Hartsbrook E-act Free, IES Breckland - Inadequate.

Its also significant that both CET schools have been graded RI, and both reports show that the school's views of their standards were not realistic.

I haven't yet had the time to read all six reports cover to cover, but I have already spotted a possible trend of unqualified, or inexperienced teachers contributing to the challenges for improvement.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 01/04/2014 - 09:13

Alistair - the use of unqualified/inexperienced teachers appears to be a trend. Ofsted found their use contributed to the failure of an E-Act free school, Al-Madinah, Discovery New School.

Westminster CET primary school, a free school set up by Constable Educational Trust (CET) used "associate teachers" who, according to a recruitment advert, were paid less than qualified teachers.

And the Ofsted for Tower Hamlets CET primary school (Requires Improvement) said:

"The school has been unable to recruit experienced leaders. Governors have recruited graduate teaching associates who demonstrate leadership potential."

Ofsted monitoring noted the disproportionate number of newly-trained teachers or trainees at Kings Science Academy.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 01/04/2014 - 09:27

Alistair - another area of concern with free schools is the apparent lack of experience of some of the heads. Mark Lehain, for example, was described as a former "Assistant headteacher" which implies a senior post such as a deputy head. But the assistant headteachers at Lehain's former school, Wootton Upper School, were subject heads. Lehain had responsibility for STEM subjects - a principal's farewell to Lehain and others said he'd "transformed" the maths department but he wasn't Head of Maths. It appears, then, he'd had little or no experience of senior management.

Interestingly, the farewell letter said Lehain left Wootton to join the New Schools Network. A cynic might say it would have been difficult for NSN not to have supported a free school proposal by an employee.

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 01/04/2014 - 09:42


You accurately quote Ofsted as saying about Bedford:

Students do not sustain good progress within and between subjects often enough.

Does anyone have any idea what progress 'between subjects' is, or how it might be measured?

I think we should be very wary of slippery concepts that could easily turn into a catch-all for when inspectors have to find a reason to back-up a prior decision to find fault. Progress between subjects sounds very dodgy.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 01/04/2014 - 11:08

Barry - you're right to pick up ambiguous statements in Ofsted reports. It could mean progress in one subject is at a faster rate than in others. I'm a bit suspicious of the progress measure - children don't progress at uniform rates and learning isn't a continuous upward progression (there's peaks, troughs, plateaus, bursts forward, falls backward etc).

That said, inspectors found teacher assessment was over generous. It had been spun as "incredible" by the school which rather has the sound of someone blowing their own trumpet too loudly.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 01/04/2014 - 11:16

I suspect / intuit that the awkward phraseology refers to our dear friend 'in school variation'.

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 01/04/2014 - 09:54

I am also very worried about this being used to say a school requires improvement:

Students for whom the school receives additional pupil premium funding do less well than their peers in English and mathematics. However the gap in attainment between eligible pupils and others is closing.

So will all schools with any remaining gap now be failed?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 01/04/2014 - 16:17

Yes Barry it is rubbish. It is all down to the ongoing confusion between relative poverty and cognitive ability/learning difficulties. Mossbourne Academy's success proves that when cognitive ability is controlled for there is no 'gap', and when relative poverty is controlled for at any level attainment is down to cognitive ability (on average of course)

Andy V's picture
Tue, 01/04/2014 - 17:27

Roger, stepping outside the thread I know but I thought you'd like to be aware that John Mountford's link with Pearson is starting to gather momentum and I'm sure his offer to join forces still stands and also that he'd welcome your input. If you're interested you could establish a direct link with him via the ordinary voices site.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 01/04/2014 - 17:52

Thank you for that Andy. I have made contact.

Justin's picture
Thu, 17/04/2014 - 16:37

I think the main issue with the schools at present is that when they open, they are only opening with say 60-120 kids ie, one year group. Therefore it stands to reason that they may not have the great Headmaster or the best teachers in place as they cannot afford to hire them under the funding regime. As the schools grow year on year, the teaching staff will grow and more teachers in specialist areas recruited and deputy heads etc. Therefore follwoing on as more specialist teachers are employed, teaching in subject areas will improve and so on and so forth. You cannot recruit teachers for history, maths, sciences, geography, IT, PE, english etc on a budget for 90 kids, it simply isn't possible.

Add new comment

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