Free schools are ‘huge success’, claims Fraser Nelson in Telegraph. But that’s not exactly true.

Janet Downs's picture

Conservatives are ignoring the ‘huge success right before their nose,’ wrote Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph earlier this month.

And what is this ‘huge success’?  Is it school funding?  Teacher supply?  ‘Schools that work for Everyone’?   Hardly.  The first two are dismal failures and the consultation for the third hasn’t been published yet – it’s over a year late.

The huge success, according to Nelson, are free schools. 

‘Many of the best state schools in the country just did not exist five years ago,’ Nelson boasted.

He’s right – but only up to a point.  Many outstanding state schools are indeed free schools.  But many outstanding schools are academies, local authority maintained schools, faith schools, non-faith schools, selective schools, comprehensive schools, single sex schools…

An argument can be made for any time of state school based on performance or Ofsted statistics.  I’ve done it myself.    But my purpose was to show how daft these kinds of claims are not to claim superiority for just one type of school.

But while many free schools may be among the best, many free schools are also dragging along the bottom.    20% of the free schools which entered pupils for GCSE last year are below the Progress 8 floor standard.  That’s more than any other type of school barring UTCs and studio schools.

But that’s not fair analysis.  Department for Education statisticians have made it quite clear:

‘The numbers of free schools, UTCs and studio schools with year 11 pupils are too small to allow robust conclusions to be drawn about their performance at the end of key stage 4, or compare between years.’

Some of the schools which didn’t exist five years ago no longer exist today.  That’s because their brief lives ended in disaster.  They were so poor they had to be closed: Discovery New School, Durham Free School, Collective Spirit are three. 

Nevertheless, free schools are more likely to be judged outstanding than other types of school.  But they’re also more likely to require improvement or be judged inadequate.   Like Longfellow’s little girl with a curl, free schools appear to be very good or horrid.  

That said, the number of free schools inspected so far or which have entered pupils for national tests is too small to come to a reliable conclusion about their overall performance.  This is something that free school advocates conveniently forget.

Nelson cherry picks free schools which have done exceptionally well: Kings Leadership Academy, London Academy of Excellence.  But he ignores the notoriety attracted by the latter when it was accused of dumping Year12 pupils it considered weren’t Russell Group ready after one year.    It’s easy to get pupils into Oxbridge if you only select pupils capable of gaining entry.

‘The list of successes can go on…,’ Nelson writes.  If the Tories can’t trumpet these successes, Nelson concluded, it deserves to lose the next election.

But the list of free school successes is balanced by the list of failures.  Selective use of data will not erase that.

 CORRECTION: original headline has been changed because I had spelt Fraser as Frazer.  Apologies.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 10/03/2018 - 14:22

Janet, your doubts are well founded, and we have been here before many times. Part 3 of my book 'Learning Matters' is entitled 'Spectacular School Improvement'. The following is Section 3.6. It is now a little out of date, but the essential message of hidden perverse consequences of chasing the latest DfE performance indicators remains the same.

"On 29 January 2014, I posted a thread on the LSN website with the provocative title, ‘Is school improvement a good thing?’ In my post I mentioned my research described in part (3.1) of my book. This is one of the anonymous responses:

“Roger – many thanks for your post – it contains so much of importance. I completely agree with you about the false concept of ‘school improvement’. I can give an example from my own experience. To get the % of maths C+’s up the school employed a range of strategies including the following:
- Pupils began studying the GCSE curriculum in Y7 and as soon as they were able to get a C they sat the exam (many of them in Y8). There were many, many resits until the magic C was achieved.
- From Y9 the C/D borderline pupils were taught in small groups with multiple teachers – all other groups were larger with just one teacher (and the groups got bigger through the year after each round of exams).
- Maths was given more time on the timetable at the expense of everything else. Maths teachers were ‘encouraged’ to provide daily ‘maths intervention’ classes in the morning before school and at the end of the day.
- Pupils were rewarded for attendance with free take-away food. C/D borderline pupils were ‘paid’ with shopping centre vouchers if they got their C in Y10 instead of Y11.
- Pupils were withdrawn from other lessons to do extra maths in the fortnight leading up to the exam.
- Pupils were entered for multiple exam boards.
- Pupils were entered for multiple routes (linear and modular) at the same time.
- Private tutors were bought in by the school to work one-to-one with individual C/D borderline pupils.
The overall effect is to increase the % getting C in maths but at the expense of higher and lower achievers in maths. It also impacts on the results in all other subjects because of loss of timetable allocation and withdrawal of students from classes on an ad hoc basis. The pressure on pupils to achieve the pass was immense and destructive and led to lower levels of commitment and motivation in other subjects. Regarding the relationship between use of equivalents and lower attainment in GCSE’s – your point about less skilled teaching staff being employed is correct, but a more important point is that once pupils get used to a much lower level of demand in the ‘equivalents’ lessons they often find it very difficult to raise their game to the level needed to perform in a more demanding subject. ‘Cut and paste’ assignments and poorly structured, low-level brush-stroke analysis is often sufficient in BTECs but is no good in academic subjects like history, English literature or physics.”
I am reminded of the oft-quoted aphorism from the consumer finance sections of the broadsheet press: ‘If it seems too good to be true then it usually is’."

In 2011, I carried out some research on Perry Beeches School in Birmingham. This was the subject of a Forum article

The abstract to the article concludes as follows.

"The most improved schools in league table terms appear to be providing the most limited curriculum judged from a number of educational viewpoints including that of facilitating progression to top universities."

We now know that this was by no means the worst of it. The Perry Beeches spectacular school improvement myth, that was uncritically reported as such in the national media, promoted by the Secretary of State for education, as well as being swallowed whole by OfSTED, led to an even more spectacular conclusion (and not in a good way).

The truth is that league table pressures and high stakes DfE performance measures often produce 'success' at one Key Stage with the perverse consequence of nobbling the performance outcomes for the school that the students transfer to, as a consequence of flawed DfE 'pupil progress measures. I address this issue here.

This can apply to KS1 Infant school success, nobbling KS2 Junior schools. It happens at all Key Stages including KS2 'success' nobbling KS4 performance measures and KS4 'success' nobbling A Level outcomes. In the latter case attention has been drawn to 'off-rolling' students during A Level courses. This is discussed by the many authors highlighted in this article.

The present 'spectacular' school improvement stars include a raft of 'zero tolerance', KIPP culture schools. It will not be possible to judge if the present rash of claims are soundly based until current cohorts have passed entirely through the system and emerged post-18. Any analysis will have to take account of all the 'dark arts' of school management that have been inflicted on the students during their educational journeys.

John Bajina's picture
Sat, 10/03/2018 - 15:04

I looked up the article, it is every bit selective as suggested.
I then had a look at some of the other articles, quite a few of these are unashamedly right wing. The worse was an awful attempt at character assassination of a lead opposition member by MICHAEL DEACON, PARLIAMENTARY SKETCHWRITER. He quoted a sting of old hackneyed allegations.
To me, this is not sketch-writing, it is straight forward politicking. One appreciates this manner of articles is probably standard practice in say Russie, China, Iran, Saudi, but surely Great British journalism has better standards?
I wonder if corruption of journalistic values is too strong a phrase to use?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 10/03/2018 - 16:14

John - I accept that papers are partisan and they're writing to please their customers.  But as you say, there's a line between fact and opinion which is too often breached.  At the same time, journalists of similar ilk support, promote and tweet misleading comments from their like-minded colleagues.   And others churn the 'facts' spewed out by other outlets (or even gov't departments) without bothering to check.  The media has a lot to answer for for spreading Gove's misleading statements.  A more sceptical media would have called him to account long before his damaging reforms which Damian Hinds, in his speech today, is trying to soften.  But it's too little, too late.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.