‘Free schools are the “modern engines of social justice” helping “break the cycle of disadvantage”, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan says…’
Department for Education 22 May 2015
Nicky Morgan’s first press release regurgitates the free school propaganda debunked on this site before:
1 ‘…half of all free schools are in the most deprived areas’. (But that doesn’t mean they take disadvantaged* children. Some** have few.)
2 ‘72% are located in areas with a shortage of places.’ (The National Audit Office 2013 found that while the majority of primary school places (87%) were in areas with forecast high or severe need, 81% of secondary free school places were not.)
3 ‘Policy Exchange research has also shown that the opening of a free school is associated with improvements in local poorly-performing schools…’ (Not quite, as I wrote here and satirised here). Policy Exchange actually said that Ofsted data ‘cannot demonstrate conclusively that any changes seen are as a response to the new Free School.’)
4 ‘Policy Exchange’s ‘A rising tide: The competitive benefits of free schools’ report found that the opening of a free school is associated with improvements in local primary and secondary schools.’ (Not so, as Henry Stewart points out here.)
5 ‘More than two thirds of free school heads say they are having a positive impact on schools in their local area…’ (This was based on a survey of 74 free school heads by the DfE. 72% (ie 49) ‘felt’ they were having a ‘wider impact’. ‘Around a third’ (ie about 26) thought their free schools had ‘provided competition which has forced raised standards’ – that means 48 did not.)
6 Free schools are ‘more likely to be rated “outstanding” by Ofsted’. (Not according to the Chief HMI – he said the inspection profile of free schools was similar to other types of school.)
Morgan described two free schools as being among those which were ‘modern engines of social justice’. But she conveniently forgot the two free schools which have been closed already, the all-through free school which had its secondary department shut, the free schools** with very few disadvantaged* children and the free schools which have already been handed to new sponsors because they weren’t quite providing the ‘truly world class education’ Morgan says free schools offer.
The Education Secretary calls on parents to ‘demand’ free schools. ‘Parents want the best for their kids’, she says, so if they’re unhappy with local schools they should ‘establish new, high performing, community-led new schools’ (and never mind the cost, the effect on other schools or on school place oversupply). But very few parent groups have actually set up free schools – they have been mainly established by other schools, academy chains, faith groups or ‘education providers’.
It will be interesting to read how much of the media will uncritically churn Morgan’s press release.
*The definition of ‘disadvantaged’ is being eligible for free schools meals any time in the last six years (FSM6).
**Free schools in disadvantaged areas which have few FSM6 children include Canary Wharf College (Tower Hamlets, 4.4%), Krishna Avanti Primary (Leicester, 8.5%), Eden Primary (Haringey, 3.3%), Nishkam Primary School (Birmingham, 5.7%), Dixons Music Primary (Bradford, 14.4%), Sandymoor School (Halton 15.4%), Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School (Blackburn with Darwin, 11%), Bradford Girls’ Grammar (11.3%) , Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham Temple Grove (Lewisham 8.3%), Langdale Free School (Blackpool, 4.9%), The Olive School (Blackburn, 5%) and West London Free School Primary (Hammersmith and Fulham, 6.7%). The national average for FSM6 children in primary schools is 26.8% and in secondary schools is 28.6% . Figures are from the 2014 DfE school performance tables.
Some free schools in disadvantaged areas do, however, take a high proportion of FSM6 pupils. It would be misleading to imply none do so. The two former CET Primary Schools (now Solebay Primary, Tower Hamlets, and Minerva Academy, Westminster) have 52.5% and 51.7% respectively. School 21 (Newham, 41.9%), Southwark Free School (Southwark, 54.5%) and Perry Beeches 2 Free School (Birmingham, 57.2%) also have a high proportion of FSM6 children.
CORRECTION 27 MAY 18.45. Point 2 has been amended to make it clear the NAO said the 87% of primary free school places and just 19% of secondary school places were in areas of forecast high or severe need. I had omitted 'high or severe'. As Barry Wise pointed out below, this is an important distinction. The NAO said 'Around 70 per cent of estimated primary and secondary places from open or approved Free Schools are in districts forecasting some need for places'. This is very near Morgan's 72% - this includes schools opened where there was just 'some' demand. The majority of secondary school places, in free schools open and approved for opening in September 2014, were not in areas of 'high or severe' demand.
The inclusion of the word 'approved' is important. Figure 3 on page 14 of the report shows the NAO knew 105 free schools had been approved for opening in September 2014 and 11 for opening in September 2015 (116 total). This shows the NAO included 2014 openers in its estimate. Some, of course, didn't open and it's unclear whether these were in areas with 'high or severe'or 'some' need or whether they were in areas with surplus . What IS clear, however, according to the NAO, 42 schools free schools had already 'opened in districts with no forecast need, with estimated total capital costs of at least £241 million out of a projected total of £950 million for mainstream Schools'.
EDIT: 1 October 2019 Formatting issues resolved