Policy Exchange’s ‘Rising Tide’ creates a splash but leaves only a damp patch

Janet Downs's picture
The Policy Exchange report, A Rising Tide: The Competitive Benefits of Free Schools begins with a splash. Its opening quote is from the Education Select Committee’s report on academies and free schools (the one that told the Government to stop exaggerating academy success).

‘What can be said is that, however measured, the overall state of schools has improved during the course of the academisation programme. The competitive effect upon the maintained sector of the academy model may have incentivised local authorities to develop speedier and more effective intervention in their underperforming schools.’

But this seemingly positive endorsement of the academies programme isn’t as conclusive as it appears. The word ‘may’ is indefinite – it implies doubt. It might be… but then it might not.
And it’s worth looking at the preceding sentences which reduce the impact of what follows:

'Current evidence does not allow us to draw firm conclusions on whether academies are a positive force for change. According to the research that we have seen, it is too early to judge whether academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. This is partly a matter of timing. We should be cautious about reading across from evidence about pre-2010 academies to other academies established since then.'

To repeat: ‘current evident’ doesn’t allow the Committee to come to a definite conclusion about the positive effect of academies. And if it’s ‘too early to judge whether academies raise standards overall’, then it’s also too early to decide whether the free school programme, which has been running for a shorter time than the academies programme, also raises standards overall.

Policy Exchange accepts the only evidence that exists about the quality of free schools is Ofsted. But inspections of free schools are few in number and the sample is too small to come to any conclusion. The Select Committee quoted Ofsted’s Annual Report on Schools 2013/14:

‘It is too early to judge the overall performance of free schools’, although ‘those inspected to date have a similar profile of inspection judgements to other schools and our inspections indicate that free schools succeed or fail for broadly the same reasons as all other types of school’.

Ofsted, then, has found free schools as a group are no more likely to be outstanding or inadequate than other schools.

Nevertheless, Policy Exchange claims there is a ‘rising tide’ caused by free schools flopping into the water which pushes up performance in neighbouring schools.

The Education Committee found there was a perception among some people that competition, whether by academies or free schools, drove up standards. But just because some people saw competition as a driver doesn’t mean it was. The Committee contradicted this perception by citing the OECD – collaboration, not competition, was the ‘key’ and concluded collaboration was ‘essential’.

One person who perceived competition would increase school performance was ex-education secretary Michael Gove. He gave anecdotal evidence to the Select Committee about what free school heads had said:

'Since opening our school, the enhanced competition has resulted in standards in the local area rising. A head of another school has openly stated that the opening of our school made him re-evaluate his provision and raise attainment at GCSE by 25%'

Correlation isn’t causation, of course. Policy Exchange admits that. It says:

‘It should be obvious – but bears setting out explicitly – that such data cannot demonstrate conclusively that any changes seen are as a response to the new Free School. A school appointing a new Head; a change to Academy status; a glut of teachers leaving; a financial crisis – all of these can affect an individual school for better or worse. It should also be remembered that sample sizes in some of these categories is quite small, and correlation should not be mistaken for causation.’

Nevertheless, Policy Exchange’s synopsis of its report ignores its own warning. It says categorically ‘The paper finds that competition is driving up standards at both primary and secondary level.’

A slightly extended version of Gove’s anecdotal evidence appears in Policy Exchange’s paper. It originally came from the Department for Education report on free schools and innovation. It’s alongside other quotes which Policy Exchange claims came from the same source.

But here’s an odd thing. The other four quotes aren’t in the DfE report cited. It’s unclear, then, where Policy Exchange found the head who said a local school was going to ‘replicate’ the free school’s model, or the one who said other schools had become ‘a bit more aggressive in their marketing’ (ie spent money meant for education on PR) or another who said local schools had all stopped teaching languages until pupils had ‘caught up in their English’ because the free school was doing that.

Wherever these anecdotes came from, they’re not in the DfE report as alleged.

It appears the ‘rising tide’ might be creating a lot of foam but when it recedes it leaves just a wet patch on the sand and has no positive effect on the existing sand castles on the beach.

AMENDMENT 09.42 The last sentence has been changed to read 'has no positive effect on the existing sand castles'. The existing sand castles, ie nearby schools, can, of course, be affected negatively by the appearance of a free school especially in areas where there are already surplus places. If existing schools lose pupils to the new free school then existing schools may have to reduce staff numbers - teachers lose their jobs. It could even threaten the viability of an existing school. A secondary free school could again take pupils from an existing school which would have to cut back on staff and options. Ironically, this could lead to pupils having less choice since two small secondaries in an area can't provide the same number of options as one large one.
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David Barry's picture
Mon, 09/03/2015 - 10:46

Where a primary Free School creates an overall surplus of places in an area there is also the possibility of a "market failure", where due to parents closer to the Free School than other schools sending their children there one ends up with a Free School with vacant places AND local schools, previously full, with vacant places. (The surplus of places, in time gets distributed over several schools in the form of vacant places in all of them).

This can also occur in secondaries of course, but is likely to be more pronounced in primary schools in densely populated urban areas where parents prefer, understandably, to walk their children to school.

All things being equal parents will prefer the school five minutes walk away to one ten minutes walk away.

NOTE: This argument only applies in areas where a new Free School creates a surplus. I an area where the school places are actually needed then parents do not have a choice anyway and market arguments are not relevant.

agov's picture
Mon, 09/03/2015 - 11:05

Morgan was on the Today programme this morning being sincere and earnest as always. -


Starts 1 hr 52 mins in.

She was claiming free schools raise standards in nearby schools; said 70% of free school heads said they were having positive impact on nearby schools; asked what the heads in those nearby schools say she replied that she goes up and down the country talking to heads in lots of different kinds of schools who say that having a FS or newly-converted academy in the local area 'absolutely' is making a big difference to education in the local area.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/03/2015 - 12:32

Thanks, agov. So 70% of free school heads said they were having a positive impact on nearby schools - well, they would say that, wouldn't they? But researchers would need to ask the nearby schools if they agreed with that assessment.

70% of free schools are good or better, she said. Well, that's about the same proportion as among other schools.

She also said she hadn't looked 'in detail' at the PX report. That's not good enough. It was available under embargo before today. Knowing, as she would have done, that the report coincided with Cameron's announcement about opening lots more free schools if the Tories win the election, then she should have bothered to read it.

She also ignored the Ed Select Committee's recommendation for the Gov't to stop hyping up academy success. Sponsored academies, converter academies, free schools were all improving education, she said. Well, some are; some aren't. And the same can be said of non-academies - those allegedly 'council run' schools.

When asked if schools should be run for profit, she denied it and said ti would make her very uncomfortable. But she must know that in turning schools into academies makes them technically 'independent' and they outsource their running to for-profit companies as the Policy Exchange document, 'Blocking the Best', made absolutely clear before the last election.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/03/2015 - 12:47

agov - I also listened to the earlier session (44.30 into the programme) between Jonathan Simons, Policy Exchange, and Dr Rebecca Allen, DataLab. Allen was unconvinced - the sample was too small. But if Simons wanted to compare free schools with neighbouring schools, then it should be pointed out that mid- and high-performing schools near free schools actually deteriorated when the free school opened.

Ah, but underperforming school improved, Simons said. Allen replied underperforming schools tend to improve - they have a lot of support and monitoring. Might be nothing to do with having a free school opening in the neighbourhood.

Simons said free schools did no 'harm'. They hadn't taken money away from other schools as their critics said they would. This isn't wholly true. The National Audit Office (December 2013) estimated total capital costs for free schools opened in areas where there was no forecast need for extra school places was at least £241m out of a projected total of £950m for mainstream schools.

That's a large chunk of money to open more places in areas with no need. It's also disproportionate when compared with the projected total for all mainstream schools.

And Gove was accused of taking £400m from basic needs to fund free schools. He didn't deny it.

There are also the children who've been harmed by being in a school deliberately set up as a better alternative to existing schools which then turns about to be inadequate. This is especially true when children are affected by their free school closing. This suggests these should never have been allowed to open in the first place.

agov's picture
Tue, 10/03/2015 - 16:04

Of course money has been taken away from other schools. A 60% or so reduction in Formula Capital budgets for a start - that is a lot, especially for smaller schools.

Does this right-wing 'research' organisation think money comes from a magic money tree? Perhaps they should try hiring an actual economist to teach them about opportunity costs.

Tim's picture
Thu, 22/09/2016 - 23:47

The Seckford Trust schools in Suffolk (Beccles and Saxmundham Free Schools are good illustrations of the way statistics can mislead. Both schools were set up in competition to existing popular and successful schools. When they received disappointingly few applicants both appear to have, whether deliberately or not, recruited a significant proportion of students with difficulties. Parents could see the benefits of a small school for them and, when students ran into difficulties in neighbouring schools they could be transferred to the free schools which were desperate to fill their classes. I'm guessing that this goes some way to explaining the lacklustre GCSE results in the free schools. It would also contribute to an apparent improvement in the neighbouring schools. None of this justifies the huge expense of creating additional capacity where it wasn't needed. The money might have been better spent on other forms of pupil support.

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