The headline is true. But it’s also mischievous and misleading. Mischievous because it attempts to demonize free schools. It’s an antidote to recent hyperbole claiming free schools are ‘best’. But it’s still misleading. There were other school types in the bottom 25 of the Progress 8 league table in 2016.
The ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ schools appear in a list compiled by the New Schools Network* (NSN). NSN claims top schools were more likely to be ‘traditional’ having ‘No Excuses’ discipline, ‘smart school uniforms, high academic expectations, a commitment to getting every child into university.’ The bottom 25 tended to be more ‘progressive’.
What does NSN mean by progressive? It lists several features such as ‘non-existent’ behaviour management policies, being less likely to have a ‘long/detailed’ uniform policy and more likely to offer extra-curricular activities comprising ‘non-academic’ offerings like ‘dance’ and ‘Lego’ rather than ‘chess’ and Combined Cadet Force.
NSN says there’s a traditional/progressive continuum but the message is clear: traditional Good; progressive Baaaaad. Such a dichotomy is simplistic.
NSN is correct, however, in stressing the importance of a positive disciplinary climate. The summary of OECD research into PISA tests found ‘attending orderly classes…is beneficial to all students, but particularly so for the most vulnerable’.
But do orderly classes imply ‘No excuses’ – the method endorsed by NSN? Neither the summary nor the full OECD analysis use the term. Neither do they mention school uniform. The full analysis (p31) says:
‘The schools where the academic and disciplinary climate is better tend to share two key features: a more stable body of teachers, and a leadership style more oriented towards clarifying the mission and directing teachers towards strategic goals and results (i.e. transformational leadership).’
Let’s apply these to the bottom 25. At least six were academies which had recently changed hands – disruption can undermine stability. Others were academies run at the time by troubled academy chains: E-Act, AET, Wakefield City Academies Trust, Bright Tribe. Running into difficulties doesn’t bode well for leadership. Yet these factors don't seem to have been considered.
It’s worth noting that not all bottom schools had been judged inadequate. Eight required improvement and four were good (including one free school). This could be viewed as an indictment of Ofsted. If so, we’re in the dangerous territory of judging schools by just one numerical measure, Progess 8, and an unreliable one at that.
NSN attempts to link its vision of successful schools with Progress 8 scores. But in doing so it’s gone beyond its remit. NSN was set up to promote free schools but seems biased to a particular type: ‘No excuses’ or ‘NeoTraditionalist’. This could deter applications for more progressive free schools if proposers feel they won't fit the approved model.
In any case, there should be only one criteria for new free schools – a need for more school places. Any other reason wastes taxpayers’ money and potentially puts existing schools at risk. NSN should neither be promoting schools where they’re not needed nor should it appear to sanction a particular type of school.
*NSN report The Secret of Successful Schools downloadable here.