Will free schools close the attainment gap?

Emma Bishton's picture
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.
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Andrew Nadin's picture
Thu, 17/02/2011 - 23:02

Interesting analysis. Mark Lehain of BKFS would argue this is precisely why he proposes to open his FS in Kempston, a less affluent area of Bedford Borough with some obvious educational shortcomings (even if they are being addressed).

But even if FSs do opt to open in areas where they might make a difference to the attainment gap, this will only be effective if the attending pupils are from the schools that are currently failing. Kempston Free School has opened it's catchment to the entire Borough, which means there is a good chance that pupils who are NOT subject to Kempston's attainment gap will get a place.

I asked Mark Lehain how he plans to measure the intake to ensure he attracts pupils from Kempston. He said he has no plans to do so.

I also asked Mark what he would do if it was discovered that, over a number of years, the intake was increasingly taken from areas outside Kempston. How would he redress the balance in order to fulfill his DfE Stg2 Proposal objective of 'creating a school for those failed by the LA'. Again he said he has no plans to measure this or take corrective action if his free schools fills up with aspirant independent school pupils.

So, irrespective of where the FSs are or their proximity to good LA schools. I believe unless the catchments & admissions are clearly designed to help those falling into 'the attainment gap', FSs won't even attempt to try to close the gap. Why would they?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 18/02/2011 - 10:59

I was interested to hear that at the recent Free Schools conference, Gove and co talked non-stop about narrowing the attainment gap between the rich and poor, and the Free School parents asked incessant questions about how to skew admissions' criteria to favour their own children. This says a lot: the rhetoric is about helping poor children, but the reality is that this is a policy aimed at Conservative voters who want to separate their children off from their local community.

Emma Bishton's picture
Sat, 19/02/2011 - 09:31

Francis I absolutely agree and can see that happening here in Suffolk - I had just wanted to test out the theory by looking at nearby schools elsewhere too.
To do the bit of analysis I looked more closely than I had previously at the websites of the schools due to open. The fact that one is Montessori and three are faith-based is interesting in itself, as is the choice of location and imposing buildings in at least a couple of cases. Of course they all talk about having open admissions policies, but at the same time focusing on issues such as restricting class size (and who wouldn't want their children to be in classes of max 25 if only our local schools could be funded for this!).
I've heard Mike Foley, the head at Great Cornard Upper School, talk about how easy it is for schools to effectively influence who chooses and doesn't choose to apply for a a school simply by making statements about what activities and subjects will and will not be provided (rugby versus football, for example), and it seems to me that at least the majority of free schools already set to open are doing this, whether they would like to be seen to be doing so or not.
In this part Suffolk, if the free-schoolers get their way then there would be two new 11-16 schools within 15 miles of each-other (one already approved to open, in Clare, and the other at business case stage in Stoke by Nayland, against which I'm campaigning as it's in the catchment for my children). Both of these schools aim to provide "local schools in our rural community".
In a rural environment in East Anglia, read this instead as attracting the children from the relatively affluent villages instead of those from the relatively deprived market town of Sudbury and Great Cornard. Essentially inverse selection, which lead to elitism and will do nothing to improve the life skills and chances of any of the children involved.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 19/02/2011 - 09:59

What you are describing Emma is very worrying but is being repeated all over the country. I believe a similar thing may happen in rural Northumberland with a local private school thinking of seeking Free School status; this could take pupils away from the excellent village primary. The parents at the village primary are very worried. It's really about having a taxpayer-funded "two-tier" system.

Emma Bishton's picture
Sat, 19/02/2011 - 19:43

According to our local MP Tim Yeo, it's about promoting parental choice. That would presumably be choice for inequality in education, then!

Jayne Kennedy's picture
Sun, 20/02/2011 - 15:01

If we 'play' the 'parental choice' game with Mr Yeo, surely that would mean (by his own criteria) that if the majority of parents are opposed to a new school and choose instead to have the investment made in the existing excellent schools, he would have to acquiesce?

Andrew's picture
Tue, 22/02/2011 - 11:13

Unfortunately, many people in suffolk are not aware of the reality the situation. Most people simply do not want the current school to close and so by agreeing with the free school they think they are keeping it open. A lot of people are unaware that it is a totally different school with new SMT and a different ethos.

I have asked those trying to start the school has is the school going to improve the results but they are totally unable to answer the question. My fear is that they just want to siphon off the "good kids" from the villages which leave Gt Cornard taking the rest. They are looking to the state to set up a pseudo private school with a selective intake

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