Free Schools: rhetoric vs reality

In May I wrote for Left Foot Forward about the chronic shortage of primary school places in parts of England and how Michael Gove’s free school programme is making the problem even more acute.

Annie Powell is a governor at a Southwark school

In May I wrote for Left Foot Forward about the chronic shortage of primary school places in parts of England and how Michael Gove’s free school programme is making the problem even more acute.

Despite knowing about this shortage, the government has spent millions of pounds establishing free schools in areas that already have a surplus of places, while areas of shortage are under-funded, particularly London.

We are already seeing the effects, with data released in June showing a sharp increase in the number of classes with more than 30 pupils. We’ve also seen coverage on BBC London News of the growing number of primary schools forced to sacrifice playground space in order to build makeshift classrooms.

And yet the education secretary remains unrepentant. In response to the charge that free schools are not going where they are needed, a spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) said in June:

“The vast majority – 91 per cent – of the primary free schools approved last month are in areas of basic need. But the truth is that English schools have not been good enough for far too long. We make no apologies for encouraging new people to come forward to run free schools. The evidence proves that new schools also encourage the ones which already exist to raise their game.”

The 91 per cent figure is spurious – overall, just under a third of free schools are going to areas which don’t need additional capacity. But more significant is the suggestion from the DfE that spending on free schools is justified even where there is a surplus of places because free schools drive up standards in areas which lack good schools.

The claim that free schools are being set up in areas desperate for more good schools is often presented as established fact, along with the assertion that free schools are significantly better than other types of school.

David Cameron, for example, declared last year that free schools

“symbolise everything that is good about the revolution that we are bringing to Britain’s schools. Choice for parents, power in the hands of teachers, discipline and rigour and high quality education in areas that are crying out for more good local schools [My emphasis]”.

This was echoed by Gove in an interview with ITV in May, where he suggested that it wasn’t problematic for a minority of free schools to go to areas of surplus because free schools are ‘beacons of excellence’ and raise standards wherever they go.

Beacons of excellence?

There are currently 81 open free schools with over 200 approved to open either this year or next. The Ofsted inspection results for the first wave of free schools have just been released. Of the 24 schools, four were judged outstanding (17 per cent), 14 good (58 per cent), five were deemed to require improvement and one was inadequate.  On the basis of these results Michael Gove seems to think that he’s been vindicated.  He hasn’t.

For a start, and most importantly, it’s pretty obvious that you can’t draw any firm conclusions from 24 results. To put this in context, there are over 24,000 schools in England. But even if we accept the weight that Gove places on this data, it still doesn’t support his claims.

Comparison with other state schools is not straight forward because schools are assessed in tranches and the assessment criteria keep changing. Since September 2012, the criteria for ‘outstanding’ have changed, and we don’t yet have complete results for the 2012/13 academic year. But it is still useful to look at last year’s results, and the results we have for this year so far (after all, that is the only way we can make any comparison).

At the end of August 2012, 21 per cent of all schools in England were judged to be outstanding and 49 per cent were good. So the free school results are better in terms of schools rated good or above, but worse in terms of achieving the top grade. So much for ‘beacons of excellence’.

Looking at Ofsted’s data view, the most recent set of data for all types of state school shows that, as at 31 March 2013, 22 per cent of the schools assessed were outstanding and 57 per cent were good. These excellent figures are in part down to the large number of schools assessed which had been deemed satisfactory at their last inspection. Other indications for this year include the performance of local authority maintained schools, 70 per cent of which have been judged good or outstanding in the nine months since August 2012.

We need to wait for this year’s results in full to get a better picture, but the results so far do not support Gove’s rhetoric.

Are free schools being set up in areas ‘crying out for more good local schools’?

To test this claim I have compiled data* of local authorities in England showing the relevant measures of school performance along with the number of mainstream free schools, open and approved, per authority.

If free schools are being set up in response to a lack of decent local schools, you would expect the majority of free schools to be in local authorities whose schools have performed below the national average in recent years. You would also expect to see far more free schools being set up in the worst performing areas than in the best.

Almost the exact opposite is true.

Across all the main measures of performance, there are significantly more primary free schools going to local authorities whose schools perform above the national average than there are to those authorities with below average schools.

Further, by every measure of school performance, more primary free schools are going to local authorities whose schools are in the top ten per cent than are being set up in the bottom performing ten per cent.

For example, no primary free schools have been approved for Medway, Hull, Suffolk, Portsmouth or Peterborough, the bottom five performing authorities on the main measure of performance (percentage obtaining level 4 or above in both English and maths). Contrast this with the two primary free schools in Richmond upon Thames and the three going to Wandsworth.

The data for secondary schools is different, with a more even number of schools going to local authorities at different ends of the spectrum. For example, looking at absolute levels of performance in 2012, 61 free schools are open, or will open, in below average authorities with an identical number in above average areas. 16 free schools will go to local authorities in the bottom ten per cent, 14 to those in the top.

When you look at expected levels of performance, however, more secondary free schools are going to the top performing authorities than to the bottom; for example, Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham get two free schools, Middlesbrough, Barnsley and Knowsley get none.

It is possible that free schools in the better performing local authorities are being set up in pockets with few good schools, but that doesn’t explain why there aren’t significantly more free schools being set up in the worst performing areas than is currently the case.

So of the government’s two main defences for setting up free schools in areas of surplus, one is totally without evidence (that free schools are ‘beacons of excellence’) and the second is demonstrably false (that they are going to areas crying out for more good schools). I’d like to think that Michael Gove will now show some humility, but I won’t hold my breath.

*Data available on request. Accurate as of 31 July 2013.

10 Responses to “Free Schools: rhetoric vs reality”

  1. Archie Mohan

    The reality is that free-schools are excellent and WORKING!

  2. Hatstand

    The point of this article seems to be to prove that Free schools are no better than other state schools. For the sake of argument, if we assume that they aren’t, then what does it matter anyway? They are still a good thing because:
    1. They are more democratic in that they are more likely to try to reflect the wishes of the local parents.
    2. They provide additional choice (democratic again). Spare capacity is essential for any system giving a choice. There is no choice without spare capacity.
    And the most obvious benefit is ‘competition’ to other state schools. Competition between providers generally improves the service/standard/efficiency of all the providers involved. Public or private monopolies are never very good.

  3. The Stand

    1. Free schools are NOT more democratic but they are less democratic as only those who set up the school and who are neither democratically elected nor accountable have a say how to run the school.
    2. Free schools do NOT provide additional choice as they are often so small that they don’t have enough teachers to cover subjects like art or music or foreign languages other than French and Spanish. A certain size in a school is simply needed so that there is a variety of teachers. Remember that there is just enough money to pay one teacher in a ratio of 1 teacher to 28 pupils.
    3. Those “spare capacities” are a waste of money and and urban myth and in reality they aren’t needed. Think about what spare capacities really means: It would mean that there is a school who has spare unused classrooms. It would mean that there are classes with just 8 pupils and the “missing” 20 pupils are the “spare capacity”. Nevertheless keeping this class with 8 pupils costs precisely as much as keeping a class with 28 pubils. It is very inefficient and unbelievably expensive to put just 8 pupils into one class instead of 25 or 28.
    This is a good example where business strategies and public service strategies differ for good reason.

    4. Gove allowed unqualified teachers to teach subjects like maths and arithmetics. Does anybody seriously believe that such schemes improve the quality of the lessons?

  4. Hatstand

    I was waiting for a response like that :).
    1. What could be more democratic than parents having a choice over how to educate their children? Surely this is more democratic than the almost soviet system of “this is the system – take it or leave it”. That is democratic in the most distance sense in that the government was elected and they ultimately control the schools. A bit remote.
    2. One of the main points is that it doesn’t matter whether the school is any good, or has enough teachers for specific subjects. If they don’t meet minimum standards they will be closed anyway. Otherwise, parents choose and if they don’t mind, why should anyone else. There may be particular strengths of the school that appeal.
    3. You are rather exaggerating the ‘spare capacity’ point. All market systems have spare capacity otherwise they wouldn’t work. But that doesn’t mean that B&Q and Homebase both keep thousands of identical hammers in its shops. They keep just enough so that they are very likely to have one when you go in. Similarly, a small amount of capacity in the classroom is all that’s needed. Like any market system, it becomes self balanced over time. Centrally planned systems, ironically, almost always do not deliver a consistent service. NHS, schools, police, etc, etc. Where there are competitive providers you will generally end up with a good consistent service for all, e.g. the much acclaimed French health service – far better than ours because it’s largely private (and free) and not centrally planned.
    4. Why are educationalists so obsessed with qualifications? If the headteacher considers the person to be a good teacher, that should be all that matters.

  5. RobShorrock

    Free schools should work – just look at the ratios and the funding per pupil. But taken as a whole they are rather mediocre. Of course, we can find examples of exemplary practice in free schools but you can also find this in the maintained state sector. The quality of education has always been about the quality of leadership, not the governing document of the school.

  6. KRS

    1 More democratic? well that might depend on whether all of the parents in a free School’s catchment or notional catchment are consulted and given the means ot exercise their opinion.
    You make a correlation between democracy and choice of a school on the basis it is more likely to reflect local parents opinions. I would question this because in the real world, middle class, educated parents tend to dominate working class parents. You know those sharp-elbowed parents like David and Samantha Cameron – his own admission. Moreover the increasing gentrification of many areas may well pre-dispose ‘democracy’ in a particular direction, which will be away from the poor, the difficult and those with little grasp of civic processes.

    2, The lack of spare capacity in the state maintained sector will persuade some parents of the necessity to set up a Free School as a response. How can you be sure that the lack of spare capacity in State schools is not being engineered. State schools have up until now been running down places and indeed teaching posts against a trend of increasing birth rates, starting about four years ago. Go to your local maternity unit, they will explain it to you.

    As for competition improving provision, well that really is rather silly. The notion, or should we say, ‘old chestnut,’ flies in the face of this country’s experience of privatisation and neo-liberal dogma.

    The privatised sectors are chaotic and failing through poor management. Privatisation does not increase competition, it just channels money in a the pockets of an ever narrowing band of people.

    Privatisation was never about healthy competition, that notion is cant.

    Carry on deluding yourself Hatstand.

  7. Hatstand

    1. You seem to be implying that we can’t have a more democratic system for the parents because the wrong people are more likely to influence things. And somehow ‘working class’ people don’t share with the middle class any aspirations for their children. This is pretty outrageous really. It only takes a small vocal minority to help improve things for all. Should we remove the right to vote because working class people don’t bother as much as retired tories?

    2. I was making a general point (not just about schools) that a small amount of spare capacity is vital if users are to have any choice.

    3. I don’t think that many people would prefer monopoly state provision of goods and services over those provided by competitive markets. This really isn’t neo-liberal dogma. Perhaps you were just referring to privatised companies. Privatisation in itself obviously doesn’t provide competition. Privatising any monopoly will not make it better. The privatisations of BA, BT, steel, etc, were very successful because they were entering competitive markets. The railways were unsuccessful because there was no competition. Trying to introduce artificial ‘markets’ or incentives to improve efficiency will never work because no one could ever get it right. Perverse incentives, targets, etc, gave us the Staffs hospital nightmare.
    Schools are fairly self contained so could operate competitively quite successfully.

    Anyway, the objection to free schools seems to be that they might not be better. That’s a bit feeble. Given how manifestly poor our education system is (very low attainment compared to other OECD countries), surely we should try anything. Perhaps there’s a bit of left wing ‘state is best’ dogma here instead?

  8. Hatstand

    1. You seem to be implying that we can’t have a more democratic system for the parents because the wrong people are more likely to influence things. And somehow ‘working class’ people don’t share with the middle class any aspirations for their children. This is pretty outrageous really. It only takes a small vocal minority to help improve things for all. Should we remove the right to vote because working class people don’t bother as much as retired tories?

    2. I was making a general point (not just about schools) that a small amount of spare capacity is vital if users are to have any choice.

    3. I don’t think that many people would prefer monopoly state provision of goods and services over those provided by competitive markets. This really isn’t neo-liberal dogma. Perhaps you were just referring to privatised companies. Privatisation in itself obviously doesn’t provide competition. Privatising any monopoly will not make it better. The privatisations of BA, BT, steel, etc, were very successful because they were entering competitive markets. The railways were unsuccessful because there was no competition. Trying to introduce artificial ‘markets’ or incentives to improve efficiency will never work because no one could ever get it right. Perverse incentives, targets, etc, gave us the Staffs hospital nightmare.
    Schools are fairly self contained so could operate competitively quite successfully.

    Anyway, the objection to free schools seems to be that they might not be better. That’s a bit feeble. Given how manifestly poor our education system is (very low attainment compared to other OECD countries), surely we should try anything. Perhaps there’s a bit of left wing ‘state is best’ dogma here instead?

  9. Cole

    The last point is especially ridiculous and fatuous. I suppose the headteacher could appoint his friends and dim relations.

  10. Hatstand

    To filter out on principle many capable and expert people just because they are not qualified in the subject is an unnecessary barrier. Making nurses degree qualified hasn’t exactly done wonders for the quality of nursing.
    In practice the head would recruit the best person for the job, just as every other organisation does.

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