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.

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