Free School impact assessments: contradictory, inconsistent and flawed

Janet Downs's picture

Bizarre assessments don’t inspire confidence

When free school proposals are approved, the Department for Education does a risk assessment before opening.  These theoretically estimate the possible impact of a new free school on existing schools.

Risks are minimal, moderate or high.  Schools at high risk are where the new free school ‘is likely to affect the long term financial viability of the school.’ 

Being a good school won’t stop it being at high risk

How was high risk established?   Sometimes it was because a nearby school had surplus places.  This could apply even when Ofsted judged it good.   For example, Harris Academy Peckham and Saint Gabriel’s College, both good schools, had empty places.  They were judged at high risk from Charter School East Dulwich.   

There’s no justification for setting up a new school when there are unfilled places locally especially if these places are in good schools.

Sometimes it was because a nearby school was less than good or had low results.  But schools can improve.

Puzzlement over how assessments were made compounded by other problems

  • Lateness in publication.  Ideally, these should be published before a school opens.  But assessments for 2016 and 2017 openers weren’t published until July 2018.
  • Lack of uniformity.   Some assessments qualified judgements with explanatory texts; some did not.  Some gave surplus places in each nearby school; some did not.  Some colour coded the risk; others didn’t.   Some had summaries, others omitted them.
  • Contradictory assessments.   Sometimes the explanatory text contradicted the assessment.   For example, Harris CofE Academy (no relation to Harris Federation) was judged at high risk from Rugby Free Secondary School but the accompanying text undermined this by citing a ‘severe basic need shortfall within Rugby’.
  • Bizarre assessments One.  Assessors pointed out that University Technical Colleges (UTCs) offered a specialised curriculum which would be ‘unlikely to attract large numbers of pupils from any one school’.   Nevertheless, ten UTCs were deemed to be a high risk to at least one school.   Warrington UTC put four local schools at high risk.  The London Design and Engineering UTC was said to pose a high risk to another UTC, UTC Royal Borough of Greenwich (now closed and turned into a secondary school at cost of £13m to local council).   
  • Bizarre assessments Two.  Studio schools are mini-UTCs.  Their small size would make them an even lesser risk.  But, no, three studio schools were judged to pose a high risk to at least one secondary school.
  • Bizarre assessments Three:  Pupil Referral Units are for pupils who find mainstream schools difficult.  These, surely, wouldn’t pose a threat to mainstream schools especially if they cater for post-16 pupils?   But Saint John Bosco RC Voluntary-Aided school was judged to be at high risk from the fifty alternative provision places at TBAP 16-19 AP College, Hammersmith.

The inconsistency, contradictions and sometimes bizarre conclusions  undermine the credibility of free school impact assessments.  That said, no free school should be opened if it threatens the viability of another school – it’s poor planning and a waste of taxpayers’ money.


The discussion above applied toimpact assessments for free schools opening in 2016.  A cursory glance at impact assessments for free schools opening in 2017 show the above problems still occured. 

Names of schools, their status and Ofsted judgements may have changed since the assessments were compiled.

UPDATE: 15 August 2018, 11.05.  The Notes above have been amended.  I originally said there was a case of an impact assessment being done five months after a free school had opened.  This was incorrect as the free school concerned didn't open until April 2018, a month after its assessment had been completed, at least in part.   I have deleted the incorrect statement.

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