Free schools can’t be judged as a homogenous group

Tom Richmond is wrong on one thing, argues Thomas Byrne. There already are numerous free school successes – and more than a few that have gone wrong

It’s true that it’s too early to tell whether the free schools programme has lived up to its champions’ claims; the former DfE advisor Tom Richmond was correct on this in his piece for Schools Week last week. It is wrong, however, to say we cannot draw tentative conclusions of some success and failure.

Commentators tend to fall into the trap of assessing new free schools as if they are a homogenous group, which is not the case.

When the programme was first launched in 2010, there was a strong focus on getting numbers through the door and new applicants were well supported.

In contrast to this helpfulness, once they had opened, schools were expected to sink or swim. The same problems that plague charter schools in the US – instability and variable performance – were imported into England, affecting the early performance of the programme.

With the appointment of Lord Nash as under-secretary of state for schools in 2013, it could be argued that a cost-benefit analysis approach was introduced. Barriers to entry were raised, with a much bigger focus on meeting capacity for places. Crucially, additional funding post-opening, and ongoing support from education advisors, is likely to have given this wave of schools an advantage.

READ MORE: Free schools – do their outcomes justify the cost?

From about 2015, the lead was handed to established MATs, with a simplified application process, triggering batch applications.

When campaigners like Toby Young and Nick Timothy call for an expansion of the programme it is not innovation they are now advocating for, but established providers.

This approach wasn’t altogether misguided. Mainstream free schools are more likely to be rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, though potentially at the cost of innovation.

Sanctuary Buildings, the Department for Education’s headquarters, turned out to be an effective education factory for churning out bog-standard but effective, MAT-led free schools. There was arguably less incentive for local authorities, knowing the DfE would fund decent MAT-led schools, to fulfil their duties to meet the need for bums on seats; especially with the ‘500 free schools over the course of a Parliament’ target introduced by David Cameron.

There have been success stories.

Islamic free schools are the best-performing of all free schools, bringing higher educational standards. Officials should look closely at the work of the Tauheedul trust as inspiration for a decent social cohesion policy. Unique schools – Michaela, XP School, WLFS, School21 et al – can push divergent pedagogy to the limit, with potentially enduring consequences for the system as a whole.

It is clear we spend too much time focusing on the title of a school, and too little thinking about what goes on inside

Then there are the horror stories. Did you hear the one about the Future Tech Studio School in Warrington, which closed just three years after opening, after the DfE opened the UTC Warrington just down the road? What about Burton UTC, which never managed to recruit enough pupils to even open? Even without such nightmares, their Progress 8 scores should be enough to trouble us.

Every time you hear someone say free schools are more likely to be successful, including the DfE, they omit these schools, even though they are quick to count them when trumpeting how many are open. They want the acclaim for success, but refuse to acknowledge mistakes.

It is clear we spend too much time focusing on the title of a school, and too little thinking about what goes on inside.

Rather than making foolish attempts to look at the whole programme, we should focus on what makes new schools successful. There are tentative steps towards this, with the New Schools Network report highlighting the apparent success of so-called “gromps”, schools that “combine the academic standards of an old-fashioned grammar with the inclusive ethos of a modern comprehensive”, but these are cherry-picked statistics with a warped methodology to suit a pre-existing Toby Young-shaped agenda.

Should the new junior minister Lord Agnew wish to look at the performance of open free schools, it would be wise to ponder what form the schools we want should take, and how they can be helped, rather than the label attached to them.

Thomas Byrne is a former civil servant

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  1. It’s right to look at what goes on in successful schools whether free schools or not. In 2012, Ofsted did just that. Inspectors identified features found in good and outstanding schools. They are summarised here: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2012/05/good-or-outstanding-schools-share-common-features-says-ofsted-and-academy-status-isn%E2%80%99t-one-of-them
    Despite these qualities being identified, the DfE still promoted academization and free schools as the only ways in which education could be improved.