Fourteen of the top fifteen schools based on Progress 8 scores have one thing in common: they have few low-achieving pupils.
Eden Girls’ School, Slough, a Muslim free school, had just two low-attaining pupils in its 2019 GCSE cohort, 20 middle-attainers and 21 high-attaining pupils. Similarly, Eden Boys’ School, Birmingham, another Muslim free school, had three low-attainers, 20 middle-attainers and 20 high-attainers.
Even Michaela Community School, a free school highly-praised by ministers, had 5 low-attainers, 43 middle attainers and 46 high-attaining pupils in its GCSE cohort. Michaela expects results to fall next year, however. It’s described the 2020 cohort as ‘challenging’.
Only Bishop Douglass School, Finchley, bucked the trend. Its GCSE cohort in 2019 had 15 previously low-attaining pupils, 27 prior middle-attainers and 14 previously high-attainers.
Yet the Department for Education boasts about how five of the top Progress 8 scoring schools are free schools. ‘In 2019, seven of the top 15 best performing school in terms of pupil progress (based on the Progress 8 measure) were free schools,’ it wrote in response to a critical Guardian article.
The DfE chastises the Guardian for not including ‘any information about the impact on attainment of another key reform – the free school programme.’
If the Guardian had referred to the free school programme, it might have mentioned that the worst-performing mainstream school for Progress 8 in 2019 is a free school: Plymouth School of Creative Arts. The trust managing the school was served with a termination order last March following an inadequate judgement. Ofsted returned in December and said the school’s improvement plan wasn’t ‘fit for purpose’.
There have been other free schools which have failed miserably. Route39, a free school opened in Devon despite there being surplus places locally, entered none of its first GCSE cohort for exams in 2017. It was closed for a ‘fresh start’ in 2018 and rebranded Atlantic College.
Robert Owen Academy had the lowest Progress 8 score in 2018. It closed shortly afterwards having been judged inadequate twice. Other secondary free schools which have closed include:
Discovery School, Newcastle
Collective Spirit, Oldham
Durham Free School
These schools hadn’t been in operation long enough to enter pupils for exams. This means their likely poor exam results won’t appear in statistics. And closing them means their failure can be forgotten.
FOOTNOTE: Several UTCs and studio schools have also been closed. These are a type of free school but I haven’t included them because their progress 8 scores are unreliable. They recruit at age 14 which means their GCSE pupils would have been in other schools for Key Stage 3.