The free schools policy appears to be about helping the rich at the expense of the poor

Francis Gilbert's picture
A shorter version of this article appears in this week's New Statesman:

From the outset, the Coalition’s Free School policy was heralded as its defining education policy, the one which made it different from Labour. The idea was that groups of parents, teachers or community members would be given the power and resources to set up their own schools, particularly in areas of high social deprivation.

In June last year, Gove said that the main principle behind free schools was “closing the attainment gap” between the poorest and wealthiest students, commenting: “The situation we have in this country at the moment is that we have one of the most stratified, segregated school systems in the developed world. In order to tackle the attainment gap, we want to learn from what's happened in America, Sweden, Canada, other countries that have given schools a greater degree of autonomy."

A year later, we now learn that there have been 323 free school proposals but that only 40 groups have got the go-ahead, with nine out of ten proposals being rejected. Of those accepted, less than half, 17, are at pre-opening stage with the Department for Education anticipating that between 10 and 20 Free Schools will open in September.

Considering there are 20,000 state schools in the England and this is 0.2% of schools, it’s a tiny droplet in the state school ocean. This statistic alone indicates the policy has failed; even if every free school were stuffed to the brim with poor children, the total number would only amount to a tiny fraction of the 4 million children living in poverty at the moment. It also indicates a huge lack of enthusiasm for the project amongst the nation’s parents and teachers, who contrary to the incessant propaganda peddled by the government, do not believe our school system is broken: the schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted reports that nearly 8 of 10 parents are happy with their children’s school.

However, despite the fact that the free school movement is woefully small, it’s worth looking at in depth because it shines a light on this government’s intentions and the possible repercussions if the policy did catch the public’s imagination.

Given Gove’s stated intention to close the attainment gap, it’s worth asking the question how many free schools will actually serve our poorest children?

My analysis indicates very few schools actually will serve poor children. Firstly, 13% of the 40 approved schools are currently private, serving our richest pupils. Although they will adopt the state school’s admissions code, the “siblings” policy, their catchment areas, and the general ethos of the schools will mean they will continue to serve well-off children. Added these schools, there are what I term the “public school wannabes”; free schools which very consciously adopt a “public school” persona: schools like Toby Young’s West London Free School – probably the most publicised school on the planet at the moment – have consciously aped the public school persona. This together with the “musical aptitude test” will no doubt attract middle-class parents. We’ll have to see how high the proportion of children from poorer backgrounds is in these schools but I suspect it will be comparatively low, even with the pupil premium, which is extra cash given to schools for admitting poor children.

Furthermore, twenty eight percent of the approved free schools are religious, catering for the Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian faiths. Research carried out by Campaign for State Education indicates that faith schools tend to attract children from prosperous backgrounds.

This indicates that the free schools system will increase social and religious segregation; far from bringing communities together, it’s certainly going to fracture them.

Nearly a third of free schools will be run by private companies. Educational chains such as ARK, Harris and E-Act have already been running the inner-city academies set up by Labour, but are now in on the free school programme in a big way. Indeed, one parent behind an unsuccessful bid to become a free school told me that going with a private provider was the “only game in town” at the moment. These private companies are used to working with poorer pupils, but a close analysis of their methods indicates that their achievements are patchy, relying on vocational qualifications, excluding undesirable students, and covertly cherry picking the brightest pupils to boost their results. Local authority schools with similar intakes have consistently out-performed them.

Sadly, only 10% of the approved free schools, a paltry four schools, meet Gove’s initial criteria for free schools: local parents setting up schools to help poor children. But even these are open to question. A school like BBG Parents Alliance in Kirklees is certainly a genuine effort by local parents to establish a school in their socially deprived community. However, dig deeper and you find that a DfE report, published last year, said the school shouldn’t be set up as it would great a huge surplus of school places in the area. The BBG Parents have faced accusations that they want a “white school” in an area which has a high Asian population. Furthermore, the millions spent on the BBG free school could be more fairly distributed amongst existing local schools.

These are the great worries about the free school programme; that they will increase social segregation and will suck scant resources out of existing state schools. It’s a concern expressed by Jim Fitzpatrick, the MP for Poplar and Limehouse, about a free school near me in Tower Hamlets, Canary Wharf college. Fitzpatrick told me: “I won’t fight them that would be pointless. I’m just worried about resources being siphoned off.”

For such a tiny programme, despite the best efforts of the government to hide the figures, we already the free schools project is proving extremely expensive: 97 top civil servants are working on the programme, the New Schools Network (NSN) has been given half a million to promote its cause, and its got the full attention of one of the best paid advisors in government, the Schools Commissioner, Liz Sidwell. Moreover, because nearly every free school will be a small operation which is promising small class sizes – Canary Wharf College is typical in promising average class sizes of 20 pupils – we know that they are not going to be cost-effective. My own calculations, using the DfE’s spending data, indicate that it will cost at least £2K more – and this is a very conservative effort – to educate a child at a free school compared with the state average. Next year, it will cost the taxpayer £7000 more to educate a child at Toby Young’s school than your average state school.

This isn’t even counting the capital costs of paying for the buildings to house these schools. The DfE has refused all Freedom of Information requests for us to know these – even when asked in the form of Parliamentary Questions – but we do know that they are going to be high. The Today Programme revealed this February that the costs of one school alone is going to be £28m and that a number of schools are being housed in listed buildings – notoriously expensive to buy and maintain.

The DfE’s reluctance to reveal the costs indicates another problem: the cloak-and-dagger secrecy surrounding the project. All the major decisions about free schools are carried out behind closed doors: no one knows the costs of the schools, why certain schools are preferred over others, why how free school staff are appointed, the numbers of pupils, even, in some cases, where the schools are situated. Andrew Nadin, a local resident in Bedford and Kempston, where Bedford and Kempston Free School (BKFS) is being set up told me: “The BKFS policy of withholding other than the most basic information – including the names of the people involved in the steering committee – has been very frustrating. From an observer’s point of view, it’s as if there’s a pact of silence between the DfE, NSN & the BKFS proposers. Even FoI’s are met with a stonewall, usually on the basis that releasing the information is not in the ‘commercial interests’ of the school.”

Tracy Hannigan who is a parent in West London and very concerned about the impact of several free school projects in her area, told me: “My feeling is that there are a lot of people worried about the lack of specific information available about free schools funding and approvals.  The Department for Education isn't releasing information under the FoIA and more than one group concerned about free schools has found their local government reluctant to disclose relevant information. Between this and the weak consultation requirements, the process has generated a lot of distrust.  If this is as great an idea as some claim it is, there should be nothing to worry about in openly presenting all of the information required for people to make an informed decision about these schools. That just doesn't seem to be happening.”

Tracy’s worries have motivated her and some other parents to set up the Parents Alliance for Community Schools which celebrates, and works to protect local community schools.

Ros Coffey, Chair of Governors, Smithy Street Primary School in Tower Hamlets, is similarly suspicious of the free schools project: "Where I live there is a move to set up a free school and articles have appeared in the local paper, so I checked out the website but could find no tangible facts about what the school might provide and who would do the day-to-day running of the school.  They want smaller classes, enhanced opportunities for their pupils and a great learning experience BUT I think that is what every child deserves not just those who go to a free school.  I can see monies being diverted to these schools to the detriment of other State Schools, so that in a very short space of time we end up with a two tier education system.  The pupils in my borough come from some of the poorest homes in the country and I will not stand by to see them deprived of the first class education that they deserve just to give a minority a chance to play at school and make potentially money from it."

Even the parents wanting to set up free schools are frustrated. One free school campaigner told me: “Our biggest concern is the lack of transparency in decision making at the DfE. Policy is being made up on the hoof. There appears to be no strategic consideration of where new schools are actually needed.”

But this is just to scratch the surface of the discontent that the programme has stirred up throughout the country. At the Local Schools Network, you’ll see numerous complaints from parents, teachers, and community members about the free school programme, worrying that it will increase social segregation, siphon off resources from state schools, that no one knows what’s going on, and that standards of education in them will be poor because unqualified teachers are allowed to teach in them. It all amounts a public relations disaster for the government.




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Toby Young's picture
Wed, 01/06/2011 - 11:46

I look forward to debating all these points with you at the Sunday Times Education Festival, Francis. Should be a lively debate.

By the way, I don't think the plural of wannabe is wannabees.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/06/2011 - 15:04

Toby, you are correct. "Wannabees" is not the plural of "Wannabe". However, as you know, English is forever evolving and I think that Wannabees is a word that could become quite common. Wannabees is a sub-species of Wannabe characterised by the loud buzzing (I will not say irritating) sounds which the genus makes as it hurtles around.

One day the word may appear on "Balderdash and Piffle" for inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary. So, remember, it was Francis that used it first.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 01/06/2011 - 11:58

Toby - Are you in partnership with LOS or not? Someone is not telling the truth - is it you or the Headmaster?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 01/06/2011 - 18:14

Thank you Toby for correcting my spelling error, I have changed it in the main text, but obviously your comment is there to show I made it. I have been contacted by someone involved with the WFLS who has pointed out that my linear regression is wrong; I have emailed him the relevant spreadsheet. I did get it checked as well by a statistician who said it was passable. Obviously, it's not a perfect estimate at all but it based on the figures we have publicly available. I suppose the big point is one of transparency. What are the costs for the WLFS? Why can't we see the funding agreement? I would be more than happy to see that my estimates of costs are too inflated.

Melissa Benn's picture
Wed, 01/06/2011 - 18:17

I think it's highly unlikely that - on current evidence - free schools are going to have a significant long term impact on the education of many poorer children for all the reasons that Francis outlines.

There's also something odd and rather offensive about the secrecy that surrounds some free school plans.

In my own local area of north west London, rumours have been rife for months about a free school group that have been holding regular meetings and have even got as far as looking for premises. They have never made themselves known to parents at large or to any local councillors in the area, as far as I know - in fact, they seem to be working quite hard to keep all their discussions and efforts under wraps.

From what I hear Toby Young has been down to meet them/advise them, and they seem to conform to what is fast becoming a dominant free school model - local well heeled parents with misgivings about the local comprehensive, even though that same school has gone from strength to strength in recent years. It's hard to see how a free school, particularly one orchestrated by ( mostly) well off parents, could do anything but undermine and fragment the local school population and provision.

But perhaps this is the very reason that the free school group is staying in the shadows. I suspect that many of its members are only too aware of the anger and dismay such plans would provoke among many other local parents; in fact, I'd go further and hazard a guess that some of them might well be embarrassed by their own involvement.

Whatever is going on, this is clearly no way to design or run a local or national schools policy. It is divisive, politically juvenile and potentially dangerous.

It is also deeply depressing that we now have a government apparently so partial in its educational plans and so prejudiced against the maintained sector that it actively encourages this sort of intrigue and fragmentation.

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 01/06/2011 - 22:13

The fledling free school group probably doesn't want the attention of union activists and LSN. Why subject yourself to these groups, they aren't accountable to anyone except their members. You'll be labelled as pointy elbowed, racist, socially unjust, apartheid.

Just to remind you I don't disagree with trying to improve local schools including comprehensives, it's potentially a noble cause, but I also agree that people can have a voice and a means of change if they want an alternative.

They should get an ex-labour wonk to head them up then it's ok.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 02/06/2011 - 06:46

Sorry, this argument about a particular group keeping their activities under wraps because it's doesn't want to draw attention to its activities will not do. As you keep reminding us, we live in a democracy, and we all have the right to have our voice heard and our views properly considered. You would quite rightly condemn an organisation (say, a Council) who kept its proceedings hidden because it feared vocal opposition.

You describe the opposition as "union activists". Well, there was a time when such "activists" were transported to Australia. Happily, we now allow them a voice, just as you have one. You also say the group would not want "members" of LSN to know what was happening. LSN is a meeting place for people who wish to discuss education and, yes, many are critical of government policy. But there is no membership. It is an open forum.

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Wed, 01/06/2011 - 19:15

Another one (again) - Does WLFS have an exemption to the Admissions Code regulations on admissions of SEN.... in this debate, please ask why all the intrigue and lack of response on such a simple point. Its pretty much a yes or no answer (though I'd love to know the 'why' if the answer is yes).

Melissa Benn's picture
Thu, 02/06/2011 - 03:58

Ben -The role of parents in school improvement is hugely important - there are so many changes that could be - should be - implemented within the schools that exist; and alternative models- along more democratic lines than the free school template - are now evolving.
LSN is not an organisation, but a forum. However, I am sure that many contributors are not against parent promoted schools in principle, particularly not where there is a shortage of school places - surely the important point here is to create this new school/new places within an accountable framework? This is what a group of parents in West Norwood did, during New Labour's time in office. Elmgreen is now a very popular, non selective, non denominational, oversubscribed comprehensive.
The borough of Camden is pioneering nother model - borrowing from interesting developments in the province of Alberta, Canada - with ALL parents in the borough being invited to offer their thoughts on school improvement. Fiona Millar has written about this elsewhere on this site.

That is what we need - open dialogue involving an entire community, not one influential group of parents yet again finding ways to escape that same community. I have always thought, incidentally, that there is no better illustration of The Big Society ( a phrase that is utterly devoid of content, in the current political context) than successful comprehensive schools.

Since writing my post above, I have been e-mailed by local parents to tell me that the free school group is in abeyance for the moment....

Whatever is happening, I would make a 'big, open and comprehensive offer' ( have I got that Cameron phrase exactly right?) to those same parents to make proposals for improvement within local school/s rather than work - covertly or otherwise - to set up rival institutions that will almost certainly - by one route or another - divert funds from, and generally undermine, our hard working local schools.

Mind you, judging from the fate of the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition, that might be one offer they would be happy to refuse!

Emma Bishton's picture
Thu, 02/06/2011 - 07:32

Free schools helping the relatively prosperous against those less well off is certainly what seems to be happening in West Suffolk – at least in terms of pupil intake. Stour Valley Community School in Clare (an 11-16 free school opening this September) is situated in a desirable small rural town; Stoke by Nayland free high school, proposed for September 2013 opening, is also in a prosperous village.
Property prices in both are high even for this area. Both places are currently in catchments for schools in Sudbury and Great Cornard with a more diverse intake overall.
The initial impetus for these free schools came from parents' anger and sadness at the closure of the middle schools. However quite apart from all the other damaging effects of starting these unnecessary schools, these schools would separate the more affluent from the less affluent –bad for the comprehensive education of all concerned and especially harsh on those left in the market town of Sudbury/Cornard.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 02/06/2011 - 19:33

Janet you are completely right that the process has to be democratic at some point. Well I would say that it happens at some point. If the group applies to open a free school then it becomes an issue of public process. Until then it's not a public issue in the sense of being accountable, although it is still beneficial for the community to know. It is comparable to planning permission.

I think the behaviour of opponents of free schools I have seen reported in the press is probably causing reticence amongst free school iniiative groups. Perhaps there is too much intimidation being felt but I can only guess, I can only rely on the media reporting.

If there is a lack of candour in free school accountability I would agree to improving that situation. Can we also compare the candour of parents who do not want to send their children to any local school so much, that they want a new school and are prepared to help start one? It has to be addressed not coerced out of existence.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 06:52

Sorry, "at some point" is not good enough. Neither is saying "it's not a public issue in the sense of being accountable" - groups who receive public money need to show properly audited accounts. And it IS a public issue - you have admitted that yourself when you say "it is still beneficial for the community to know." You compare it to planning permission. However, planning permission applications are published on Council's websites and properties who may be affected by the development are informed. Local people then have the right to comment. In the case of secret free schools proposals, this right is denied.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 07:25

Eric Pickles promoting transparency in council expenditure said: "The taxpayer has a right to look under the bonnet of their Town Hall and see what decisions are being made on their behalf and where their money is being spent… Transparency must be the underlying principal behind everything councils do. Every aspect of council business should be open to public scrutiny…”

This standard should apply to any body funded by the tax payer including free schools and their proposers. And it should also apply to Government departments.

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Thu, 02/06/2011 - 19:51

Groups 'in process' and those put off to reapply again are all funded by public money. They therefore should be open to scrutiny. Are you supporting, then, that currently funded groups make themselves more accountable? That would be great!

Can you tell me of some instances of free school opponents being intimidating? I haven't seen that - but would be interested to know where it has happened. I have only seen opponent groups represented in a rather 'human interest' / 'warm fuzzy' way - not very 'scary'.

Parents who want to start a new free school have the benefit of a £1/2M £ organisation, 95+ DfE consultants, and all of the money that somehow appeared out of nowhere to help create their vision and voice. If we were equally equipped, I think after examining the 'success' of FS so far, we know who would succeed in having the greater voice.

Melissa Benn's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 07:55

There can be a real blindness at work in the free school agenda - the belief that Free school founders can overcome all the problems that face existing schools - simply by wishing it so.

I have been re-reading Laura McIerney's interesting pamphlet on this issue, 'The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools' - and her accompanying blog, discussing the issues in depth.

The following quote struck me as useful in relation to the above debate:

' In order to avoid unhelpful feelings of superiority or uniqueness, it is my strongest advice that those wishing to start Free Schools speak first to all local stakeholders, and particularly to teachers and leaders at all nearby schools plus the Local Education Authority. Go without an agenda and listen to what they say are the local problems. Perhaps there is a crisis shortage in places (as there is in East London from 2012), maybe a school is needed for excluded students, or students whose sporting or acting talents regularly take them away from school. If your school can solve a problem identified by these knowledgeable people, rather than trying to compete for innovation’s sake, you will be able to better justify your place in the market.'

She also comments:

'Some Free Schools also pertain to be solving a problem when really they might not be best placed to do so. West London Free School flies dangerously close to this line with its emphasis on Latin. Now aware of parental demand for the ancient language, local Ealing schools are now all offering Latin. In my view, the problem has been solved.'

Yes, this is good evidence of how the WLFS has already helped to improve local educational provision, and its doors aren’t even open yet!

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 09:57

There is no evidence that Latin improves education standards overall. You may argue that the inclusion of Latin at WLFS has "helped to improve local educational provision". However, the provision of Latin may be at the expense of something else - a modern foreign language, perhaps. And are these local schools making Latin compulsory or taking a wiser course and heeding the warning of Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge?

Professor Beard is angry that the provision of Classics in the maintained sector is woefully low (this would seem to support Charlie's point). However, while saying categorically that "Latin and Greek should be available to the talented of whatever wealth and class, she asks "But is it actually a sensible educational goal to try to spread Latin and Greek right across the ability range?"*

Perhaps "sensible educational goals" are being jettisoned to get bums behind desks.

Beard, Mary, "It's a Don's Life", p17

Well don’t leave us in suspense, what does Professor Beard conclude? ;-)

I’m proud that because of the WLFS many children in my area now have the opportunity to study these subjects, even if they decide not to take up that opportunity.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 13:31

She says it would not be sensible. Latin is a demanding subject and its chief delight is being able to read literature in the original language. This is a requirement of GCSE Latin (or it was when Professor Beard was commenting) - removing this requirement would be dumbing-down. In her view Latin should only be taught to enthusiastic volunteers and it would not be a sensible educational goal to offer it to the whole ability range.

Charlie says that WLFS offers the opportunity to study Latin but pupils may "decide not to take up that opportunity." So is Latin compulsory at WLFS, or is it not? Are pupils only offered the opportunity to study it, or do they have to?

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 13:34

Maybe they could select for potential ability in the ability range - perhaps a voluntary IQ test? Or a mandatory one? So is it OK to self select for Latin even if others don't and there is a social gradient?

Janet, you've misconstrued what I said.

Because of the WLFS, according to Melissa's quote, pupils at schools in Ealing now have the opportunity to study Latin. This was the thrust of the first point I made.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 14:54

Melissa was quoting from a pamphlet by Laura McInerney which could be summarised as follows:

Free school proposers cite an alleged problem - something that is not provided by local schools. This is presented as something desirable which only the free school can offer (the Unique Selling Point). Never mind if there has been little, if any, demand for the subject before the free school came along – the important thing is to create a demand and to present the free school as superior.

Once the demand has been manufactured, then local schools have two options: the first is to ignore what their rival is offering; the second is to meet the demand themselves. Some of them choose the latter option. This may indeed be improving local educational provision – this would be a benefit. But this could come at a cost – the dropping from the curriculum of another subject.

The point Ms McInerney was making is this: if there truly is a demand for something then this might be able to be provided by existing schools. Free schools, Ms McInerney is saying, should ensure they are really meeting a demand (eg a dearth of school places locally) and not just manufacturing one to justify their existence.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 04/06/2011 - 07:18

The LSE report to which Charlie refers says there are indeed external effects on neighbouring schools when an academy opens but these are not beneficial:

Page 51 "When we look at external effects on neighbouring schools, our results suggest that (on average) neighbouring schools experience a sharp and significant decrease in the ‘quality’ of their pupil intake at year 7." Since when was a decrease in intake quality been beneficial? And why the use of the word "suggest"? Did the quality of intake go down or didn't it? If it did, why not use the word "show"?

However, the researchers add (P51) "In addition to this, we also find that it is possible for neighbouring schools to experience significant improvements in their pupil performance despite the reduction in the ‘quality’ of their pupil intake. This seems to occur (mainly) in the neighbours of academy schools that experience large significant improvements in their pupil performance. We do not believe that this is a coincidence: it suggests that it is possible for performance improvements in an academy to generate significant beneficial external effects on their neighbouring schools"

The latter paragraph appears to support Charlie's claim about the provision of an academy having a positive effect on pupils performance in neighbouring schools. However, careful reading shows that this is conjecture on the part of the authors:
"it is possible", "seems", "suggests", "We do not believe...", are not phrases backed up by hard evidence. They are opinion.

And the statement: "It suggests that it is possible..." really means "It suggests that it might be possible..." Sorry, not hard evidence at all.

These schools had every opportunity to offer Latin from way before the WLFS was a glint in Toby Young’s eye, but they didn’t. McInerney says, “In my view, the problem has been solved.” She misunderstands the problem.

The problem is exemplified by the lack of provision there was in the first place. The problem is that there was no impetus for the schools to discover the demand and act on it. Competition is healthy, as McInerney has inadvertently shown.

McInerney also misunderstands the WLFS if she thinks that our USP is Latin. We are about a lot more than Latin, and I hope to see neighbouring schools copy a lot more of our ideas in the future if it suits their purposes. We will certainly be happy to share.

A recent report by the LSE says that it is possible for performance improvements in an academy to generate significant beneficial external effects on their neighbouring schools including an increase in their pupils’ performance.

As for this idea of manufacturing demand, I can only presume that you are using the term to imply that there is something artificial about the demand. Do you mean that Ealing pupils and parents don’t want Latin as an option? Then why do they say they do? Or perhaps you mean that they would have been just as happy if they had remained in ignorance of the possibility of it being an option? Perhaps you think that what they don’t know won’t hurt them?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 04/06/2011 - 09:09

Sorry, typo again. The question should have been "Since when has a decrease in intake quality been beneficial?

Oh dear, Janet. You better throw away all your OECD reports. This is the language of social science where sample data is used to draw conclusions. 30 seconds of research uncovers that in the latest PISA report on behaviour that Francis linked to there was the following sentence on around page 2.

“In 2000, PISA results suggested that the majority of students were generally satisfied with the quality of their relations with their teachers. By 2009, the quality of student-teacher relations was even better.”

Suggested? Well were they generally satisfied or weren’t they? If this is in doubt then how sure can we be about their 2009 conclusion?

Of course I’m happy to accept these findings as I understand that social science isn’t physical science. When drawing conclusion from such data you can’t say that event A definitely caused event B, there are numerous other factors at play and you can’t test your results in a lab.

If you don’t like the evidence then can you at least be honest in your posts and say, “La la la, I can’t hear you, my fingers are in my ears, la la la.”

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 12:03

Yes there should be forms of statutory notification and accounting of public money. I am sure accounting can be improved. It isn't always easy to account LA schools at the moment as far as I can tell.

But if some people are just organising privately without state help then they aren't bound to open themselves up. They might choose to do that and it could be a good thing. If they are given various labels perceived as negative, such as "associated with Toby Young" and "well heeled", "staying in the shadows" by people who disagree with them maybe they start to think there is a reason to remain private and act on that.

Sarah's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 12:55

As soon as any group applies to open a school and receives publicly funded help and advice from the New Schools Network and the many civil servants in the DfE their identity should be made public, as should all of the information they supply in support of their proposal. If their proposal is a good one it should be able to withstand the public scrutiny of their local community. At the very least there should be a proper opportunity for all local parents and local stakeholders to have their say and for those views to be taken account of in making a decision about whether the proposal advances - and those decisions should be challengeable in the same way as any school organisation proposal currently is. If a local authority proposes a school closure or the significant enlargement of an existing school it has to go through a very rigorous and public process before any decision is taken - why isn't the same sort of scrutiny being given to the opening of additional schools particularly given their likely impact on other educational provision in the area?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 13:53

Governing bodies in LA maintained schools have to follow these rules:

"A school governing body has significant executive functions, such as deciding the strategic direction of the school and how the school budget is spent, and determining staffing levels. It also has an important scrutiny role in acting as a ‘critical friend’ of the school, in monitoring the school’s effectiveness and requiring the headteacher and staff to report to it on the school’s performance. In turn, the governing body is answerable to parents and the wider community for the school’s overall performance. Governing bodies are statutorily required to hold annual parents’ meetings and to issue annual reports, which must contain certain types of performance indicators, based on published targets, such as National Curriculum assessment results and pupil absence rates."

Note the phrase "answerable to parents and the wider community".

Academies have to produce audited accounts but as they are "exempt charities" they no longer have to submit accounts to the Charity Commission - academy trusts submit their accounts to the Department of Education only.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 17:21

Ben Nathan - Cohen

Toby young claimed that the WLFS is in partnership with the London Oratory. The Head of the London Oratory denies this yet Toby has reiterated that he IS. Who is telling the truth? WLFS/Toby or LOS/MacFadden?

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 17:22

I do apologise - that was addressed to Charlie Ben-Nathan, not to my good friend Ben Nathan Cohen -

Toby young claimed that the WLFS is in partnership with the London Oratory. The Head of the London Oratory denies this yet Toby has reiterated that he IS. Who is telling the truth? WLFS/Toby or LOS/MacFadden?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 04/06/2011 - 09:05

Let’s discuss this in marketing terms:

1A new provider (NP) arrives in the market place. There are already suppliers some of whom have been judged as good or outstanding.

2The NP must establish that its product is better than that offered by other suppliers so looks for a possible gap in the market. If there is no obvious gap (such as a dearth of other suppliers) then the NP must identify a Unique Selling Point (USP).

3The USP is presented as something exclusive to the NP. The lure of exclusivity is very seductive (which is why top-brand perfume manufacturers don’t like their products sold in Superdrug).

4 The NP can now promote the product. It helps if the product has aid from the state which provides funds for the product, its place and its promotion, especially if the state rubbishes existing suppliers (using distorted evidence).

5Competing suppliers rush to fill the hitherto unidentified gap. The competitors might do this by stopping the supply of something else in their range (this may or may not be in the long-term interests of the market). But they feel forced to compete.

6Faced with competition from existing suppliers, the NP claims that its arrival in the market place has increased provision overall (even though there was no evidence of demand for that provision before the NP arrived). Therefore its existence is a good thing. It begins to identify further USPs to demonstrate its superiority. Return to step 2.

And all before it's even started trading!

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 04/06/2011 - 10:08

Charlie - re social science language. OK, I'll concede on "suggest". But how about "it is possible" and "we believe"? What I was trying to say, clumsily because I'm not a social scientist, is that it's often difficult to differentiate between opinion based on evidence and opinion based on conjecture. And sometimes even between opinion and evidence.

As far as the OECD is concerned their reports show the factual evidence and any opinion is based on that evidence. As you know, I use OECD data frequently because it is a respected organisation whose opinions matter to governments globally. So if OECD were to say "we believe" I would be inclined to give this opinion more weight that the same words used by, say, a commentator who cherry-picked phrases to back up a pre-conceived idea or one who relied on "30 seconds" of googling.

Back to the LSE report - I detected bias against LA maintained schools. For instance, the authors described LA school governance, prescribed by law to guarantee local involvement, as "rigid", while the self-selecting governing bodies in academies were portrayed as more flexible. The report also said (page 12) that LA "schools do not have responsibility for any staffing decisions." This is incorrect, because staffing decisions in LA schools are made by the governing bodies of those schools.

I am not sure that this critical reading is equivalent to sticking fingers in my ears and singing La, la. I think that remark is more pertinent to people who distort data or who say research showed things which they did not. For example, the incorrect assertion made twice on this forum that OECD has said that increased user choice also increased standards.

To be fair, it was within 30 seconds of following Francis' link, not googling. You are right that such figures are always open to interpretation. The OECD suggestions are still based on the beliefs of the authors, although it is unlikely that they would ever state it thus as they are writing for the OECD as opposed to themselves as researchers.

If something is prescribed by law then it is definitely rigid and surely must be more rigid than something that isn't prescribed by law, but I agree with you, that is no basis on which to say one system is better than another.

With regard to the worsening intake at neighbouring schools of new academies, I think I agree with you on this, but probably not in the way that you would first assume. We need to find a better metric for measuring schools’ performance. 5 A*-C at GCSE is a farce as we know it will reflect intake more than anything else, so I’m not sure how removing CVA helps. What the LSE report suggested was that pupils at the academy do better and pupils in the neighbouring schools do better. So all pupils are doing better! This should be recognised and celebrated, however, at the same time the results at the neighbouring schools might be falling leading the unenlightened to suspect that the schools are doing worse, when in fact the opposite is true.

I seem to remember you writing in a recent post along the lines that the way schools are measured is unhelpful (but I can’t find it now), I think I even ‘liked’ it. If you start a campaign for a better metric I’ll be the first to sign up.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 04/06/2011 - 13:05

Thanks for the reply, Charlie. I actually agree with much of what you say especially about the way schools are measured. It was OECD (Oh, no, not them again!) who expressed a concern about the excessive reliance on exam results in England and advised the government to devise more sophisticated ways of judging schools. Their suggestions might form the basis for another thread (leave it with me - perhaps tomorrow - the sun and wine beckons).

The point about the LSE report's comments re governance is that the legally-defined rules surrounding LA schools were presented as inflexible (which they would be, wouldn't they, being laid down by Statute?), while the undemocratic, self-selecting governing bodies of academies was presented as not hidebound by regulation. The latter was presented as a good thing, but it isn't if the governing bodies choose their own members.

To be fair to the authors of the report, they did say somewhere that correlation wasn't the same as causation. So a rise in GCSE scores in schools near an academy (which also had higher scores) might not necessarily be caused by the proximity of an academy. It might suggest (that word again) other things. I'll think about it, but won't be blogging again today. After half a glass of wine I won't even be able to say "suggest", let alone spell it.

Melissa Benn's picture
Sat, 04/06/2011 - 13:21

It's obviously absurd to judge schools on exam results - or exam results only - as intake clearly plays such an important part in this, whether the school works hard or not. Our own local comprehensive took the single biggest jump of any school in the country in last set of Financial Times league tables - and while parents were proud to see an excellent school recognised out in the wider world - for once! - there was also a lot of discussion, among parents, about the reasons for the jump and the fact that, in effect, the school was not doing that much that was different but they were dealing with a different cohort of students.

More broadly, I am not sure that any form of accountability from exam results to Ofsted report will ever really capture a school's true strengths or show up its failures.

But I'd be interested, Janet, to see what you have to say about other forms of accountability - when you have returned from your Saturday off , obviously - and decide to pick up the threads of your thought on this. Do you think detailed parent reports - anonymous perhaps? - could ever play a part in a system of accountability or is that just too open to abuse and manipulation? ( As I write, I see the problems.) After all, a lot of parents make their decisions about a school based on the informal feedback of other families rather than official reckonings.

I remember hearing a school governor representative say at a conference last year that Ofsted reports should include the judgement of the inspector/s on whether they would send their own child to the school in question.As soon as she said it I thought - 'Oh, that's interesting'....and then,' Mmm perhaps not..'

Thoughts anyone?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 05/06/2011 - 10:03

I've posted a summary of the concerns by the OECD about the excessive emphasis on exam grades in judging schools on a new thread entitled: "Too much emphasis on grades is cause of concern, say OECD". I'll be interested in any comments.

I've just noticed grammatical errors in my post above (subjects of sentences not matching the verb). Oooops! If an Ofsted inspector had noticed, I could always pass them off as deliberate mistakes designed to test the attention of pupils.

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