What the New Schools Network doesn’t tell you about Free Schools (Part 1)

The New Schools Network is putting round a document entitled “Free Schools Facts and Figures”. It tries, rather desperately, to make the case that free schools are something special and that all the criticisms of them are wrong.

Actually, you could hardly believe the number of holes in what they are claiming. So many that it’s going to take more than one blog post to cover it all. If you want to read the original alongside these comments you can find it at http://www.newschoolsnetwork.org/sites/default/files/Free%20School%20Facts%20and%20Figures%20briefing%207th%20July%20FINAL.pdf

Anyway, here is the first instalment of the commentary:

Who sets up Free Schools?

Claim: 63% of free schools have been set up by teachers, existing successful schools, academy chains or existing providers.

This fails to distinguish between genuine grass roots initiatives and large organisations without local links simply moving in on an area.

For example the 2014 openers list contains 9 Harris schools, 5 Ark schools and about 20 others clearly identifiable as promoted by existing academy chains. This is 20% of the planned schools.

In fact the number of free schools promoted by local parents groups is small. The list includes:
– Schools in reality promoted by local authorities to meet local needs
– Schools promoted by parents seeking a pseudo-grammar school as an alternative to often perfectly good local comprehensive provision.
– Schools promoted by particular religious groups – not always identified as Faith Schools.
– Schools promoted by other schools, colleges or universities – for a range of reasons ranging from altruism to empire building.

Successful parent groups, where they exist, are usually professional, middle class groups, sometimes with political connections. Amongst religious schools, Muslim applications are markedly less successful that those from other faiths.

It would seem likely that there is a significant social class bias in the process. There is also a clear trend in London for the introduction of highly selective post 16 institutions which will be at the expense of other sixth form and college provision and of the students in them.

Claim: Free schools have to prove that they are wanted by parents and students before they are allowed to be set up.

Proposed schools collect “expressions of interest” from parents. This may or may not translate into actual applications. There have been a number of cases where very few actual applicants have emerged and others where the impact on other good schools in the area has been ignored.

There is no transparency about the process of opening free schools. DfE has been forced by FoI requests to publish information and has resisted in the strongest terms. For example:

– DfE were forced to publish impact assessments on other schools by an NUT FoI in spring 2013
– DfE were forced to publish names, locations and faith affiliation of free school proposals by Humanist Association FoI. But even after this ruling in 2013, the DfE continued to refuse publication in relation to future waves of applications
– Laura McInerney put in an FoI for free school application forms and the government responses saying whether they were accepted or not. This too was resisted and was finally lost at Tribunal because the DfE argued that removing personal and sensitive information from so many was an excessive demand that the DfE was not resourced to cope with.).

For commentary on this see http://www.naht.org.uk/welcome/news-and-media/blogs/susan-young/free-schools-and-freedom-of-information/ and http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jul/15/how-i-lost-my-free-school-secrecy-court-battle

Popularity

Claim: Free schools are popular with parents. On average free schools received 3 applications per place and 9 out of 10 primary free schools were over-subscribed.

This ignores the fact that applications systems enable parents to apply to up to 6 different schools for each child – different maxima in different places but never just 1. The real question therefore is how many chose a free school as first choice. This is not provided. The information given by NSN is not proof of being over-subscribed.

The application process requires proposed schools to gather “expressions of interest”. This is very different from actual applications. The reality is:
–   Some schools are popular and fill easily
–   Some fill because they’re meeting a local need for places
–   Some don’t fill.

No one has demonstrated a “free school effect”. It depends on the school and the local situation. As noted above, the DfE has consistently resisted providing any evidence about applications to open free schools, why they succeeded or failed and what the impact on other schools might be.
Ofsted outcomes

Claim: Free Schools are outperforming other state schools. They are more than twice as likely to be judged outstanding than their other state education counterparts.

The Ofsted data makes comparisons which are clearly invalid. It compares free school inspections between Sept 2012 and July 2014 with other inspections carried out in that period. This ignores the fact that good and outstanding schools are inspected much less frequently than others. So the sample of schools inspected in this 2 year period will not be a cross section of all schools – it will be heavily skewed to the less successful.

A more appropriate comparison is with the last inspection outcome for all schools. This shows (at March 2014) that 20% of all schools were outstanding, 60% good, 18% required improvement and 2% were inadequate. Amongst free schools, 24% were outstanding, 45% good, 25% require improvement and 6% are inadequate.:

It is claimed that free schools were inspected under the new “more rigorous” framework. In fact the inspection outcomes under the new framework were better than under the previous framework with the same proportion of outstanding schools and 10% more good ones. This suggests that the new framework is actually less rigorous and certainly means that the comparison in the table is a fair one.

More tomorrow!

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