Pro-free schools charity, NSN, attempts to panic parents in its latest report

Janet Downs's picture
‘Chance of getting first choice school in decline’ says a New Schools Network press release.

It claims ‘competition for first choices heats up’ and provides a graph showing a steep decline in the proportion of parents receiving first preference secondary school places.

But the graph is misleading. A competent GCSE Maths pupil would spot the vertical scale begins not at zero but at 82.50%. It ends at 87%. This truncated scale exaggerates the slight drop in the proportion of parents getting their first preference secondary school.

In 2015, the proportion of parents receiving their first choice was 84.2% - a 2% drop from 2013 when applications for secondary places reached a six-year low. The number entering secondary school is rising and NSN is right to highlight a possible future shortage of places. The NSN suggests that expanding existing secondary schools is not the right strategy because many these extra places are in ‘failing schools’.

14,000 extra places have been created in schools deemed to be ‘failing’ by Ofsted, claims NSN. But we’ve seen before how NSN’s definition of ‘failing’ includes schools deemed to Require Improvement.

‘42,000 – over half – of the 79,000 places created in expanding schools were in schools where GCSE results have worsened’, the charity says. But exam results have worsened nationally since 2013 when 60.6% reached the benchmark 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English. Changes to exams and league tables resulted in a drop to 56.6% in 2014. A further decline to 56.1% is forecast by provisional results for 2015. A fall in exam results in the context of a national decline doesn’t necessarily mean a decline in education quality.

But suppose NSN is correct and a fall in exam results means extra places provided in these ‘poorly performing’ schools are poor quality places? We must then apply this to the new places provided in free schools.

Bradford Girls’ Grammar School, a former independent school for girls aged 4-19, has 700+ places. NSN claims its secondary stage received 856 applications for only 53 places available in Year 7. But GCSE results at the school dropped from 90% in 2014 to 75% (provisional) in 2015. Judged by NSN’s own criteria, the extra places provided by Bradford Girls’ Grammar are poor.

Similarly, Batley Grammar School, another former independent school turned free school, has slightly less than 700 places for children age 3-19. Its GCSE results have fallen steadily from 81% in 2013 to 71% (provisional) in 2015. And Sandbach School, with spaces for about 1300 boys aged 11-19, also saw its exam results fall (slightly) from 65% to 63%.

If NSN’s theory is correct, then 2,700 places in ‘poorly performing’ schools were created by allowing these three independent schools to become free schools.

That’s without considering extra places provided in schools designated ‘Free School – Studio School’ or ‘Free School – University Technology College’. These have performed poorly in the GCSE stakes. And some of the tiny number with two years’ results show a fall: Bradford Studio School, down from 24% to 8% (provisional); The Midland Studio College, down 34%-8%; Aston University Engineering UTC, down 52% to 37%.

But the analysis in the last four paragraphs is actually misleading. When NSN, or anyone else, talks of GCSE results falling, we need to know the previous figure. GCSE results at the three former independent schools highlighted above are still above the national average.

It’s likely many of the schools criticised by NSN for a decline in results are also still performing well but it suits NSN to imply otherwise. However, if NSN sticks by its theory that schools with falling results provide poor quality places, then it must apply this to free schools.

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