Warnings ignored – Toby Young of New Schools Network still pushes free school superiority despite ‘serious limitations’ of analysis

Janet Downs's picture

We’ve been here before.   Time and again this site has said there isn’t enough data to come to a firm conclusion about the performance of free schools as a group.

Claims about the superiority of free schools, regularly spewed out by the Department for Education and the New Schools Network (NSN), are misleading.  One example, a DfE press release in September, was even censured by the UK Statistics Authority.    

A report about free schools has been published by the Education Policy Institute (summarised in Schools Week ).  The report stressed:

 ‘There is insufficient data to reach robust conclusions on the effectiveness – good or bad – of free schools in terms of Ofsted outcomes and pupil attainment and progress.’

Nevertheless, the EPI report published analyses showing pupil attainment and progress in free schools.  This has been cherry-picked by Toby Young, NSN’s director, in a TES article:  

The report also highlights the success of free schools at key stage 1, where pupils are more likely to achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics than any other type of school.’

But he ignores the analysis of performance at the end of key stage 2 (KS2):

  • In 2016 and 2017 ‘the proportion of pupils that reached the expected standard in each of reading, writing and mathematics in free schools was relatively low.’
  • Free schools were the lowest performing school group in writing and mathematics … well behind converter academies and local authority schools.

It would be misleading, however, to use the two findings above to slate free schools.  The report gives further warnings about the primary free school data:

  • Only a tiny number of free schools had pupils taking end of KS2 tests
  • These are unlikely to be representative of all free schools
  • KS1 analysis didn’t control for level of development on entry
  • KS1 analysis didn’t consider whether teacher assessments were reliable

Young ignores these warnings and cited the KS1 analysis at face value.

Young’s article was in response to a TES piece arguing the report showed a need to ‘rethink’ the free school programme.     Young wrote:

A more accurate summary of the report would be to say it found free schools have had a positive impact in London and the South East, reducing social segregation and raising standards, particularly for the most disadvantaged.’

This, again, is misleading.  The EPI made it abundantly clear its analysis presented ‘a mixed picture’.  Analysing Ofsted judgements and performance in tests had ‘serious limitations’ regarding how far they could be used to measure how effective free schools as a group are.

The New Schools Network (and the DfE) should take note.

UPDATE 12.06 17 November 2017:  The New Schools Network has published its spin on the EPI report here.  Unsuprisingly, there's no mention of the warnings and 'serious limitations'.  

This is a companion piece to ‘20% of free schools are below Progress 8 floor standard’, ‘Free school headlines - stuffed full of selected stats Part 1’  and ‘Free school headlines – stuffed full of selected stats Part 2’ 

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Jane Eades's picture
Fri, 17/11/2017 - 12:14

And, presumably, these assessments only include those 'free' schools which remain open, rather than those which were given money (sometimes large amounts) and closed shortly afterwards or didn't get to the stage of opening.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 17/11/2017 - 12:23

janee - info re closed free schools would be removed from the data thereby deflating the number of free schools found to be inadequate.

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