Free school headlines – stuffed full of selected stats (Part 1)

Janet Downs's picture

The New Schools Network (NSN) has published a blurb called The Case for Free Schools.

It would be tempting, but wrong, to write a case against free schools.  They have a role to play in meeting the need for school places.  And some like School21 are truly innovative.    It would be perverse to argue against free schools for the sake of it.

But this doesn’t mean that puff pieces claiming free school superiority should be left unchallenged.

NSN presented four ‘headlines’.   I’ve commented on the first two (in italics) below:

Free schools are more likely to be rated Outstanding than ‘council-run schools’

The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) said comparing the proportion of Outstanding free schools with all other schools isn’t ‘materially misleading’ (email to author 21 April 2017).  Nevertheless, UKSA had concerns about such comparative statements which it’s shared with the Department for Education.

If it’s not materially misleading to say free schools are more likely to be Outstanding then it’s also not materially misleading to state:

Free schools are less likely to be Good

Free schools are more likely to Require Improvement

Free schools are more likely to be Inadequate

The data in bold above compares free schools with all other schools.  But NSN compared them only with ‘council-run schools’.  Does this comparison paint free schools in a more favourable light?

The answer is ‘No’.

Analysis published on Ofsted data up to 31 December 2016 looked at overall grade distributions.  This showed:

91% of council maintained schools were good or better compared with 89% of converter academies, 84% of free schools and 65% of sponsored academies.

The analysis recognised that Ofsted changed the way it inspected schools in 2012.  Many Ofsted reports pre-date this.  Using post-September 2012 inspection data only, the figures show council maintained schools still have the largest proportion of good or better schools:

88% of council maintained schools are good or better, 87% of free schools, 83% of converter academies and 64% of sponsored academies.

The analysis comes with several caveats, however.  Pre-conversion ratings for converter academies are excluded.   Ofsted’s adopted a ‘risk based’ approach.  Schools moving from LA supervision to academy status change the data for both types of school. 

In any case, the number of free schools inspected is too small to come to reliable conclusions about their group performance.    Figures comparing free schools with other schools should be used with caution (a warning that’s usually missing from statements praising free schools).

Free schools are popular.  In 2016, secondary free schools attracted an average of 3.6 applicants per place, compared to an average of 2.4 applicants per place for local authority schools.

These figures are not first-preference only.   Including second, third or later preferences gives an inflated idea of a school’s popularity.

UKSA says first preference are ‘reasonable proxy’ for popularity.  First preference figures for non-selective secondary schools in 2016 show free schools are indeed the most popular of non-selective secondaries.  But the point* difference between free schools and non-selective community (LA maintained) schools is just 0.16.  It’s unclear whether such a small point difference is significant or not.

These first two headlines contain no warnings about the use of free school data.  The statistics are selectively used.  In particular they are used to malign ‘council run schools’ as if they are the lowest type of school.  It should be remembered, however, that the majority of schools are still LA maintained despite seven years of aggressive promotion of academies and free schools combined with constant sneering at ‘council run’ schools.

Mercifully there are just four headlines in The Case for Free Schools.  I will write about the next two shortly.


*Using the secondary phase pupil preference data “times put as 1st preference” was divided by the “total number of places offered” to find the 1st preference per place offered value for each grouping





(school preferences)

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 21/07/2017 - 15:38

"It would be perverse to argue against free schools for the sake of it."

It would be perverse to argue against anything for the sake of arguing, but there are plenty of reasons to argue against Free Schools and the Academy system in general, of which they are a part. Here are a few such arguments.

Academisation takes away the ability of elected Local Authorities to plan school provision on the basis of demography and need.

Academies are not democratically accountable in any meaningful sense.

Academies allow rich opinionated individuals and organisations with strong ideological viewpoints to run schools to which thousands of children are forced in practice to attend regardless of the wishes of their parents. See

When a government interferes in the national education system for for ideological reasons the dangers are obvious. The historical parallels of Nazi Germany and the Stalininist USSR are obvious, but there are plenty of modern day examples.

The 1945 Education Act and the creation of Local Education Authorities was deliberately intended to prevent ideological interference in schools by the State. Privatisation (Academies and Free Schools) is the back door route.

There is no evidence that Academisation (including Free Schools) is raising educational standards. Janet has been pointing this out for years. When it comes to deep learning and the cognitive growth of the population as a whole, the evidence of the 'Anti-Flynn Effect' is that standards are falling as a direct results of the growth of the marketisation of the education system. See

My argument is that marketised schools driven by SATs and GCSE grade ‘C’ performance thresholds are forced to prioritise achieving ‘floor targets’ at any costs. This condemns a large proportion of the school population to 11 years of shallow, degraded behaviourist teaching that, by age 16, will not develop cognitive ability sufficiently for full functioning in the modern world resulting in a vicious circle of failure and alienation.

A study by Flynn (2009) found that tests carried out on British children in 1980 and again in 2008 show that the IQ score of an average 14-year-old had dropped by more than two points over the period. For the upper half of the ability range the performance was even worse. Average IQ scores declined by six points. This apparent recent reversal of the Flynn effect is confirmed by a parallel study carried out in 2005/6 by Michael Shayer and Denise Ginsburg (but not published until 2009) and gives weight to the contention that educational standards in England are falling as a consequence of the degrading of the education system. The decline in KS2 noted by Shayer, Coe and Ginsberg (2007) showed an even bigger effect than that recorded by Flynn: the 11 year-olds were testing at the level of 9 year-olds in 1976.

If environmental factors such as high cognitive challenge can result in growth of cognitive ability over time, as Flynn now asserts, then it follows that poor teaching of the wrong sort can produce a decline. Shayer and Ginsburg found just such a decline suggesting that the English education system could be ‘making our kids dimmer’ at the same time as stuffing them with ever more qualifications.

See Sections 5.10 & 5.11 of ‘Learning Matters‘

Then there is vast cost of it all - a bloated DfE struggling and failing to manage the Academy and Free School movement resulting in an explosion of financial scandals, massive costs of imposing Academisation including closing, selling off and demolition of public assets, secretive support of MATs in costly takeovers of failing schools (now often already Academies and Free Schools), inflated salaries and bonuses of 'Executives' that know nothing about education and a politicised OfSTED making bizarre decisions about the quality of schools.

I could go on. The question now is not whether to reverse this catastrophe, but how. My ideas published some ago still seem sound and continue to attract support. See

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 22/07/2017 - 08:44

You're right that the academy and free schools system has negative effects.  My objection is focused on the system not individual schools or academies unless there's a proven reason.   Individual schools, whatever their type, serve children.  There may be problems with individual schools.  If so these should be brought to light.  But I don't think it's desirable to condemn every academy or free school because of their structure even though the structure is flawed.   There are good and bad academies/free schools just as there are good and bad non-academies.  But blanket condemnation is what the New School Network and some ministers do when they sneer at 'council run schools'.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 22/07/2017 - 09:56

Regardless of the variation in quality of individual Academies and Free Schools, the children in all of them would benefit from their being within democratically accountable Local Authority control. This absolutely must begin with admissions and governance. I understand (hope) that is now Labour Party policy.

LAs have never controlled school pedagogy, merely offered support and intervened in the rare cases of malpractice and/or low standards.

I set out my suggestions for a 'step by step' approach (no wholesale reorganisation) here.

Evolution is always better than imposed revolution. Step by step structural change is possible in the English education system. It is very important that each relatively small step itself represents a significant improvement on what went before so enabling the process of change to build gradually towards a coherent synthesis each component of which can stand alone in terms of its logic, the evidence in its support and the absence of disruption to the cumulative process.

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