When announcing the free schools programme, Michael Gove made a point of claiming that free schools would ‘close the attainment gap’. I am completely opposed to the principle of free schools, but I was curious to see if he had approved schools in areas where this could possibly happen. The story told by the schools nearest the first nine schools to be approved suggests it is hard to see how free schools are going to help do this.
I looked at the schools closest to the eight primaries and one secondary free schools for which business cases have been approved. (This was the two nearest schools for each, or three where there were separate schools for infant and junior). The most recent Ofsted inspections for these twenty existing schools show that:
none (0%) are inadequate, 7 (35%) are satisfactory, 9 45%) are good, and 4 (20%) are outstanding. Compare these figures compare with the national results from all primary schools Ofsted inspected in 2009-10 where 7% were judged inadequate, 39% satisfactory, 44% good and 9% outstanding, and it is clear that there are not only no inadequate schools nearby but also that there is a higher proportion of good and outstanding schools than in general.
So it doesn’t appear that these areas are experiencing the kind of attainment gap that Gove is trying to fix.
I then looked at pupil eligibility for free school meals, a commonly-used proxy measure of relative deprivation. In these twenty neighbouring schools there is above average to very significantly above average eligibility in two of the three outstanding schools and seven of the nine good schools. So it would appear that most of the proposed schools are in areas experiencing higher deprivation but are nonetheless delivering a good or outstanding standard of education.
I appreciate that this is a rudimentary piece of analysis, but so far it doesn’t seem likely that Gove’s actions will ‘close the attainment gap’ as there isn’t one to close. There are of course many areas of the country that could benefit from an investment in education as is being given to these free schools but not, on average, the areas already chosen.
What seems far more likely is that areas where schools are already clearly performing well are going to be given more resources which, ironically enough, is most likely to result in those existing schools losing income and suffering the consequences. So the policy is far more likely to increase the attainment gap than reduce it, and do so in areas not currently suffering as much of a gap as elsewhere in the country.