The Policy Exchange report, A Rising Tide: The Competitive Benefits of Free Schools
begins with a splash. Its opening quote is from the Education Select Committee’s report on academies and free schools
(the one that told the Government to stop exaggerating academy success
‘What can be said is that, however measured, the overall state of schools has improved during the course of the academisation programme. The competitive effect upon the maintained sector of the academy model may have incentivised local authorities to develop speedier and more effective intervention in their underperforming schools.’
But this seemingly positive endorsement of the academies programme isn’t as conclusive as it appears. The word ‘may’ is indefinite – it implies doubt. It might be… but then it might not.
And it’s worth looking at the preceding sentences which reduce the impact of what follows:
'Current evidence does not allow us to draw firm conclusions on whether academies are a positive force for change. According to the research that we have seen, it is too early to judge whether academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. This is partly a matter of timing. We should be cautious about reading across from evidence about pre-2010 academies to other academies established since then.'
To repeat: ‘current evident’ doesn’t allow the Committee to come to a definite conclusion about the positive effect of academies. And if it’s ‘too early to judge whether academies raise standards overall’, then it’s also too early to decide whether the free school programme, which has been running for a shorter time than the academies programme, also raises standards overall.
Policy Exchange accepts the only evidence that exists about the quality of free schools is Ofsted. But inspections of free schools are few in number and the sample is too small to come to any conclusion. The Select Committee quoted Ofsted’s Annual Report on Schools 2013/14:
‘It is too early to judge the overall performance of free schools’, although ‘those inspected to date have a similar profile of inspection judgements to other schools and our inspections indicate that free schools succeed or fail for broadly the same reasons as all other types of school’.
Ofsted, then, has found free schools as a group are no more likely to be outstanding or inadequate than other schools.
Nevertheless, Policy Exchange claims there is a ‘rising tide’ caused by free schools flopping into the water which pushes up performance in neighbouring schools.
The Education Committee found there was a perception among some people that competition, whether by academies or free schools, drove up standards. But just because some people saw competition as a driver doesn’t mean it was. The Committee contradicted this perception by citing the OECD – collaboration, not competition, was the ‘key’ and concluded collaboration was ‘essential’
One person who perceived competition would increase school performance was ex-education secretary Michael Gove. He gave anecdotal evidence to the Select Committee about what free school heads had said:
'Since opening our school, the enhanced competition has resulted in standards in the local area rising. A head of another school has openly stated that the opening of our school made him re-evaluate his provision and raise attainment at GCSE by 25%'
Correlation isn’t causation, of course. Policy Exchange admits that.
‘It should be obvious – but bears setting out explicitly – that such data cannot demonstrate conclusively that any changes seen are as a response to the new Free School. A school appointing a new Head; a change to Academy status; a glut of teachers leaving; a financial crisis – all of these can affect an individual school for better or worse. It should also be remembered that sample sizes in some of these categories is quite small, and correlation should not be mistaken for causation.’
Nevertheless, Policy Exchange’s synopsis of its report ignores its own warning. It says categorically ‘The paper finds that competition is driving up standards at both primary and secondary level.’
A slightly extended version of Gove’s anecdotal evidence appears in Policy Exchange’s paper. It originally came from the Department for Education report
on free schools and innovation. It’s alongside other quotes which Policy Exchange claims came from the same source.
But here’s an odd thing. The other four quotes aren’t in the DfE report cited. It’s unclear, then, where Policy Exchange found the head who said a local school was going to ‘replicate’ the free school’s model, or the one who said other schools had become ‘a bit more aggressive in their marketing’ (ie spent money meant for education on PR) or another who said local schools had all stopped teaching languages until pupils had ‘caught up in their English’ because the free school was doing that.
Wherever these anecdotes came from, they’re not in the DfE report as alleged.
It appears the ‘rising tide’ might be creating a lot of foam but when it recedes it leaves just a wet patch on the sand and has no positive effect on the existing sand castles on the beach.
09.42 The last sentence has been changed to read 'has no positive
effect on the existing sand castles'. The existing sand castles, ie nearby schools, can, of course, be affected negatively by the appearance of a free school especially in areas where there are already surplus places. If existing schools lose pupils to the new free school then existing schools may have to reduce staff numbers - teachers lose their jobs. It could even threaten the viability of an existing school. A secondary free school could again take pupils from an existing school which would have to cut back on staff and options. Ironically, this could lead to pupils having less
choice since two small secondaries in an area can't provide the same number of options as one large one.