Morgan’s first press release spews out the usual free school propaganda

Janet Downs's picture

‘Free schools are the “modern engines of social justice” helping “break the cycle of disadvantage”, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan says…’

Department for Education 22 May 2015

Nicky Morgan’s first press release regurgitates the free school propaganda debunked on this site before:

1  ‘…half of all free schools are in the most deprived areas’. (But that doesn’t mean they take disadvantaged* children. Some** have few.)

2  ‘72% are located in areas with a shortage of places.’ (The National Audit Office 2013 found that while the majority of primary school places (87%) were in areas with forecast high or severe need, 81% of secondary free school places were not.)

3  ‘Policy Exchange research has also shown that the opening of a free school is associated with improvements in local poorly-performing schools…’ (Not quite, as I wrote here and satirised here). Policy Exchange actually said that Ofsted data ‘cannot demonstrate conclusively that any changes seen are as a response to the new Free School.’)

4  ‘Policy Exchange’s ‘A rising tide: The competitive benefits of free schools’ report found that the opening of a free school is associated with improvements in local primary and secondary schools.’ (Not so, as Henry Stewart points out here.)

5  ‘More than two thirds of free school heads say they are having a positive impact on schools in their local area…’ (This was based on a survey of 74 free school heads by the DfE. 72% (ie 49) ‘felt’ they were having a ‘wider impact’. ‘Around a third’ (ie about 26) thought their free schools had ‘provided competition which has forced raised standards’ – that means 48 did not.)

6  Free schools are ‘more likely to be rated “outstanding” by Ofsted’. (Not according to the Chief HMI – he said the inspection profile of free schools was similar to other types of school.)

Morgan described two free schools as being among those which were ‘modern engines of social justice’. But she conveniently forgot the two free schools which have been closed already, the all-through free school which had its secondary department shut, the free schools** with very few disadvantaged* children and the free schools which have already been handed to new sponsors because they weren’t quite providing the ‘truly world class education’ Morgan says free schools offer.

The Education Secretary calls on parents to ‘demand’ free schools. ‘Parents want the best for their kids’, she says, so if they’re unhappy with local schools they should ‘establish new, high performing, community-led new schools’ (and never mind the cost, the effect on other schools or on school place oversupply). But very few parent groups have actually set up free schools – they have been mainly established by other schools, academy chains, faith groups or ‘education providers’.

It will be interesting to read how much of the media will uncritically churn Morgan’s press release.


*The definition of ‘disadvantaged’ is being eligible for free schools meals any time in the last six years (FSM6).

**Free schools in disadvantaged areas which have few FSM6 children include Canary Wharf College (Tower Hamlets, 4.4%), Krishna Avanti Primary (Leicester, 8.5%), Eden Primary (Haringey, 3.3%), Nishkam Primary School (Birmingham, 5.7%), Dixons Music Primary (Bradford, 14.4%), Sandymoor School (Halton 15.4%), Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School (Blackburn with Darwin, 11%), Bradford Girls’ Grammar (11.3%) , Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham Temple Grove (Lewisham 8.3%), Langdale Free School (Blackpool, 4.9%), The Olive School (Blackburn, 5%) and West London Free School Primary (Hammersmith and Fulham, 6.7%). The national average for FSM6 children in primary schools is 26.8% and in secondary schools is 28.6% . Figures are from the 2014 DfE school performance tables.

Some free schools in disadvantaged areas do, however, take a high proportion of FSM6 pupils. It would be misleading to imply none do so. The two former CET Primary Schools (now Solebay Primary, Tower Hamlets, and Minerva Academy, Westminster) have 52.5% and 51.7% respectively. School 21 (Newham, 41.9%), Southwark Free School (Southwark, 54.5%) and Perry Beeches 2 Free School (Birmingham, 57.2%) also have a high proportion of FSM6 children.

CORRECTION 27 MAY 18.45. Point 2 has been amended to make it clear the NAO said the 87% of primary free school places and just 19% of secondary school places were in areas of forecast high or severe need. I had omitted 'high or severe'. As Barry Wise pointed out below, this is an important distinction. The NAO said 'Around 70 per cent of estimated primary and secondary places from open or approved Free Schools are in districts forecasting some need for places'. This is very near Morgan's 72% - this includes schools opened where there was just 'some' demand. The majority of secondary school places, in free schools open and approved for opening in September 2014, were not in areas of 'high or severe' demand.

The inclusion of the word 'approved' is important. Figure 3 on page 14 of the report shows the NAO knew 105 free schools had been approved for opening in September 2014 and 11 for opening in September 2015 (116 total). This shows the NAO included 2014 openers in its estimate. Some, of course, didn't open and it's unclear whether these were in areas with 'high or severe'or 'some' need or whether they were in areas with surplus . What IS clear, however, according to the NAO, 42 schools free schools had already 'opened in districts with no forecast need, with estimated total capital costs of at least £241 million out of a projected total of £950 million for mainstream Schools'.

EDIT: 1 October 2019  Formatting issues resolved

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Phil Taylor's picture
Sat, 23/05/2015 - 12:16

Thanks once again Janet - you must be the most diligent fact-checker in the country.

When we are dealing with such dishonest people as Gove and now Morgan, your input is valuable. What is really needed, of course, is a national statutory fact-checking organisation - with teeth!

Mollie Weston's picture
Sat, 23/05/2015 - 12:43

Janet - many thanks.

Do you have the percentage of disadvantaged children for each LA listed with a free school with very low intakes of disadvantaged children, for a direct comparison?

I have forwarded Gillian Hargreaves (Radio 4 education correspondent) LSNW posts on a variety of occasions, in the vain hope some of all this evidence finds it's way into one of her reports. I feel like sending her this one too, but I fear I would be wasting my time.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 23/05/2015 - 13:40

Mollie - the DfE School Performance Tables don't give the FSM6 proportion for each sector (ie primary, secondary) in each LA. They give the national proportion for state schools (which I've given) but they only give the FSM6 proportion in the year group taking exams in each LA (ie Y6, Y11). For example, 69% of the Y6 SAT cohort in Tower Hamlets in 2014 were FSM6. This makes Canary Wharf's 4.4% look extremely low indeed. Similarly, 54% of the Y6 SAT cohort in Hammersmith and Fulham in 2014 were FSM6. This gives us some figure to compare Toby Young's West London Free School Primary with.

Thanks for forwarding articles to education correspondents who might be interested. There must come a time when the evidence debunking DfE spin becomes so large it can no longer be ignored. Some of the media picked up the story of Gove and the dodgy surveys - I suppose this was because they could heap ridicule on him. Unfortunately, stories which aren't funny don't seem to have much effect.

Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 27/05/2015 - 12:56


Some of your data in this post are looking rather dated and are maybe not quite accurate anyway.

You say, for instance that The National Audit Office 2013 found that while the majority of primary schools (87%) were in areas with forecast need, 81% of secondary free schools were not.

That 2013 NAO report and it makes clear that it is basing its figures on the 174 free schools then open. I think there are more than 400 open now, so the position could well have changed. In any case, these figures can't be said to 'debunk' or refute anything Morgan may be saying about a much larger dataset.

Also, the NAO report doesn't quite say what you claim it says. What it actually says is:

Free Schools already open are expected to provide an estimated 27,000 primary places in districts forecasting high or severe need (87 per cent of all primary places in Free Schools) but only 19 per cent of secondary places in Free Schools are in such areas.

So, the 81% are not in areas of no need at all; just not in areas of high or severe need. Important distinction, surely? Also the 81% (or 19%) are places not schools. Also a potentially important distinction.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/05/2015 - 16:26

Barry - you're right the info re which free schools are in shortage areas is out-of-date. I couldn't find anything more up-to-date. If you have it, then please send a link.

Thanks for pointing out the 'high or severe need' point. I'll make this clear in the above article.. But what IS clear is the NAO said 'The estimated total capital costs for Schools opened in districts with no forecast need for extra school places are at least £241 million out of a projected total of £950 million for mainstream Schools.' I'll make this clear as well.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/05/2015 - 18:39

Barry - as you'll see from my correction, the NAO factored in free schools planned for opening in September 2014 (and a few for September 2015).

Morgan said 254 free schools were now open. Does your 400 include those planned for opening in September 2015?

You're right about 'places' not being the same as schools. I've corrected that too. Morgan said, '72% [of free schools] are located in areas with a shortage of places...' so the distinction was also missed by her.

Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 28/05/2015 - 09:14


I kept seeing the figure 400 in news reports during the election campaign. On checking this appears to be the number "approved".

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 28/05/2015 - 12:35

Barry - not all free schools 'approved' will eventually open. And, as we've seen, a small number eventually close (or are handed to another sponsor).

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 28/05/2015 - 12:43

Barry - according to the latest edition of the Teacher magazine, Dr Rob Higham, Institute of Education, told the Education Select Committee that 35% of the first four waves of free schools were in districts with no forecast need. This reduces Morgan's figure to 65% opening where there was 'some' forecast need or more.

A further 17% were set up in areas where there was just 'moderate' forecast need.

According to Dr Higham's evidence, 52% of these free schools were in areas of no or moderate need. It follows that 48% were in areas of high or severe need.

It should be expected that in a time of austerity that NO school should be set up at taxpayers' expense when there is no or only moderate need in the area. There are areas of high or severe need which require new school places before those with only moderate or no need.

Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 28/05/2015 - 16:45


As I understand it (which is probably imperfectly, to say the least), the question of need was something of a late addition into the mix when it came to decisions about free schools. For the early waves (perhaps for all the first four?) basic need either wasn't a factor at all, or was perhaps a subsidiary one. You probably remember there was a lot of talk about 'demand' instead. Later, there was a change of emphasis and 'need' was uprated, though this may only have been for primaries.

In London, all primaries would qualify under 'need'. But I believe the picture is further complicated by a change in where the 'need' had to be. That is, in some waves it was within an LA area, in others in planning areas within LAs. So, with all these changes it will be impossible to make comparisons over time without comparing chalk with cheese.

This may explain why Ms Morgan tends to use a broad brush. If she had to get into the nitty gritty she'd have to make speeches as long as Fidel Castro used to.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 28/05/2015 - 16:53

Barry - the changing reasons for setting up free schools have been discussed here before. Whatever the stated reasons, it's unacceptable for schools to be set up where there's little or no need. 'Demand', of course, isn't the same as need.

If it's so difficult to discover whether free schools are in areas of need or not, then Morgan should know better than to give the proportion (disputed) about how many are in areas of need. This was a DfE puff piece promoting the wonderfulness of free schools. She should perhaps take the advice of the Ed Select Committee in relation to academies (and free schools are academies): stop exaggerating free school achievement. It's misleading propaganda designed to butter up the electorate so they accept 500 new free schools which may or may not be where there's any actual need for places.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 28/05/2015 - 16:55

Barry - PS, I forgot to say - 'demand' was replaced (partly) by 'need' after the Coalition received flak for setting up free schools (at a cost of millions, remember) where there were already surplus places.

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