Conservatives are ignoring the ‘huge success right before their nose,’ wrote Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph earlier this month.
And what is this ‘huge success’? Is it school funding? Teacher supply? ‘Schools that work for Everyone’? Hardly. The first two are dismal failures and the consultation for the third hasn’t been published yet – it’s over a year late.
‘Many of the best state schools in the country just did not exist five years ago,’ Nelson boasted.
He’s right – but only up to a point. Many outstanding state schools are indeed free schools. But many outstanding schools are academies, local authority maintained schools, faith schools, non-faith schools, selective schools, comprehensive schools, single sex schools…
An argument can be made for any time of state school based on performance or Ofsted statistics. I’ve done it myself. But my purpose was to show how daft these kinds of claims are not to claim superiority for just one type of school.
But while many free schools may be among the best, many free schools are also dragging along the bottom. 20% of the free schools which entered pupils for GCSE last year are below the Progress 8 floor standard. That’s more than any other type of school barring UTCs and studio schools.
But that’s not fair analysis. Department for Education statisticians have made it quite clear:
‘The numbers of free schools, UTCs and studio schools with year 11 pupils are too small to allow robust conclusions to be drawn about their performance at the end of key stage 4, or compare between years.’
Some of the schools which didn’t exist five years ago no longer exist today. That’s because their brief lives ended in disaster. They were so poor they had to be closed: Discovery New School, Durham Free School, Collective Spirit are three.
Nevertheless, free schools are more likely to be judged outstanding than other types of school. But they’re also more likely to require improvement or be judged inadequate. Like Longfellow’s little girl with a curl, free schools appear to be very good or horrid.
That said, the number of free schools inspected so far or which have entered pupils for national tests is too small to come to a reliable conclusion about their overall performance. This is something that free school advocates conveniently forget.
Nelson cherry picks free schools which have done exceptionally well: Kings Leadership Academy, London Academy of Excellence. But he ignores the notoriety attracted by the latter when it was accused of dumping Year12 pupils it considered weren’t Russell Group ready after one year. It’s easy to get pupils into Oxbridge if you only select pupils capable of gaining entry.
‘The list of successes can go on…,’ Nelson writes. If the Tories can’t trumpet these successes, Nelson concluded, it deserves to lose the next election.
But the list of free school successes is balanced by the list of failures. Selective use of data will not erase that.
CORRECTION: original headline has been changed because I had spelt Fraser as Frazer. Apologies.