There’s more to free schools than just warm-strict discipline

14 Sep 2019, 5:00

The recent GCSE results have vindicated free schools for their tireless efforts, says Unity Howard. But there’s more to the movement than warm-strict discipline

The much-anticipated GCSE results of the first cohort of students at Michaela Community School in north London showed the power of their headteacher’s vision of a highly academic curriculum and warm-strict discipline. Across every subject more than 50 per cent of grades were level 7 or above, against a national average of 21 per cent. Katharine Birbalsingh’s determination and belief in this approach has transformed the lives of her students, with results even the most ardent of opponents would struggle to criticise.

It is right that Michaela’s achievements are publicly celebrated. But the school is, in fact, just one of more than 500 free schools – 61 of them opening for the first time this month.

Much has been made of their very “traditional” approach to behaviour, and it’s fair to say that Michaela’s results aren’t a huge surprise, given that clear and consistent behaviour policies are integral to school success. In fact, they have been a feature of the free school policy to date, with new schools challenging what had become the status quo on behaviour.

Of the free schools Ofsted has inspected, 39 per cent have been rated outstanding for behaviour, compared with 17 per cent for all other schools. This means that free schools are more than twice as likely to score the highest grade for behaviour.

This summer, 65 per cent of students at Bedford Free School achieved grade 4 or higher in English and maths. At Jane Austen College in Norwich, part of the Inspiration Trust where teachers have a similarly “warm-strict” approach to behaviour, it was 75 per cent. In the same trust, Ofsted rated Charles Darwin primary, in the same trust, as outstanding in all categories. Its teachers were commended for having the highest expectations of behaviour, and a consistent approach aimed at increasing pupils’ self-discipline and responsibility.

However, the true advantage of the free school programme is that there is no need for conformity in behaviour policies. Rather, it allows for a wide variety of approaches across different schools, determined by the leaders that run them. Many take a vastly different approach to behaviour and prove that a school fostering a softer approach to boundaries and an ethos of encouragement can thrive.

Many schools prove that a softer approach can thrive

XP School in Doncaster, where the focus is on character development delivered through cross-subject expeditionary learning, 86 per cent of students received grade 4 or higher in English language and history. Similarly, 72 per cent of pupils at Wye School in Ashford, Kent, received grade 4 or higher in five or more subjects. The school has developed an imaginative and positive behaviour policy, which is well understood by all and is becoming effectively embedded.

Fundamentally, the free school policy offers every new school the ability to foster a strong ethos with clear behavioural policies from day one. The vision behind the school takes years of development and honing, and is rigorously challenged as a key facet of the application and assessment process.

It is this clarity and consistency that presents the conditions for schools to thrive, regardless of the approach they adopt – whether that is a Michaela-like model or something more akin to XP in Doncaster.

The point is this: free schools have quickly become a beacon of new ideas and driven improvement across education. Where teachers once felt powerless to challenge the system and implement their own ideas, they can now take control of their dream school; communities can demand more for their children and reject the failed approaches of the past to create something different and better, tailored to their needs.

These schools have used their freedoms to thrive and whether their behaviour model is based on tough love or handing out tokens for good behaviour, we should celebrate them. What’s more important is that we protect the founding vision of the free school policy: giving teachers, leaders and communities the opportunity to define what works for their pupils.

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  1. But ‘free’ school parents self-select, don’t they? And those ‘freedoms’ the PR piece above extols aren’t being used to create anything especially new, are they? In fact, quite the opposite.

    ‘Free’ school money would be better spent on expanding existing schools if required or just on schools, which don’t have enough. Otherwise it all feels like the ‘innovators’ and ‘disrupters’ have simply got their hands on the pot of education money meant for everyone and are playing out their fantasy for some while the many suffer. Education funding for all, please.

  2. Many schools have in the past claimed astonishing SATs results using knowledge-based teaching, but CATs tests taken a few months later in secondary schools reveal a different story. This very edition of Schools Week carries an article about an 11-18 school kicking large numbers of students off A level courses at the end of Y12. These students presumably got good enough GCSEs to start these courses so what happened? The truth is that ‘knowledge-based’ cramming can improve exam grades, but it is not deep learning and it doesn’t last. The true test for Michaela and other schools using these methods is not GCSE results but progression to academic A Levels especially in STEM subjects and for the few that do enrol, the drop-out/kicked-out rate.

    Will Michaela publish the 16+ progression data for its 2019 leavers? Don’t hold your breath.


    Where Academies and Free Schools really do stand out is in the frequency of financial scandals and the vast cost to the taxpayer of re-brokering the many failures.

    • Mark Watson

      You may find it surprising, but I completely agree with your thoughts on how understanding is the key to everything rather than absorbing facts. I also found your article to be genuinely interesting and thought provoking.

      I just find it unfortunate that for whatever reason you seem to be fixated on all the current woes in education (and there are many) being a direct result of the academies programme.

      It seems clear to me that the main reason any school tries to ‘influence’ their intake, or move on/off-roll poorly performing pupils, is to improve their position in the League Tables, with the hoped-for result of more applications. Adopting a particular approach to teaching that will produce better exam results – teaching to test rather than teaching to learn – comes from the same driving force.

      But League Tables were introduced in 1992 and so have no relationship with academies at all.

      And it seems undeniable that funding, or rather under-funding, is the real bogeyman. The results of the financial crash in 2008 hit every part of the public sector hard as belts were tightened, and there seems no credible denial of the fact that schools currently have far less money than pre-2008. This requirement to balance budgets when the income in real terms is going down is why schools, as one example, prefer to train teachers on the job rather than hire experience. It’s simply a matter of cost, otherwise they’d go for the more experienced (more expensive) teacher for the simple reason they’d be likely to do better, improve results, and help climb the League Table (see point above). All schools, be they academies, LA schools, or Church schools are under the same financial pressures. However by the time the pigeons came home to roost in a financial sense, it tended to be academies operating the secondary schools where savings had to be made and so they carried the can for making tough decisions rather than the public sector bodies.

      I would suggest there is only one part of the education sector that in most (but not all) cases really adopts the approach you advocate – teaching above, beyond and behind the subject rather than just what is necessary to do well in a one-off exam – and that’s the independent sector. And why? Because they can. Because they’re not beholden to League Tables in the same way, and because they have the financial security to recruit who they want, not just who they can afford.

      • The answer, then, is to scrap league tables. I’d second that. It’s not going to happen, of course, politicians are obsessed with grading schools (and that includes those in the Labour years).

        I also agree with your point about schools needing adequate funding.

        • Mark Watson

          For the reasons in my comments above I’d agree with getting rid of League Tables.

          The problem is that from another standpoint I think they’re a good thing.

          As a parent, looking to make the best decision about where to send my child (genuinely one of the most important choices in life) League Tables and Ofsted ratings are hugely useful aides. Not the be-all-and-end-all, but a really helpful starting point.

          Doing badly in League Tables is never going to feel great for those particular schools. But it does help identify those schools that maybe need additional oversight and support, either from a Local Authority or the DfE. There’s always going to be a limited amount of money and something that flags up where it’s needed most is good.

          Competition is also a driver of improvements. Wanting to do better in next year’s League Tables can be encouragement to do more, and seeing other schools rise through the ranks can help avoid better-performing schools from sitting on their laurels.

          Of course all these positive things have the potential to be negative. But simply doing away with them would not be a silver bullet, it would just leave us with different problems. There’s no easy answer.

          • Schools are inspected. Scrapping league tables wouldn’t remove that. However, ‘competition’ between schools also has negative impacts as you rightly say: ‘off-rolling’, ‘gaming’, tweaking admission criteria to dissuade applications from pupils likely to bring down league table position.
            Raw exam results are, in any case, more a judge of a school’s intake than the quality of education offered. Progress 8 is better but still flawed as it discriminates against schools where the intake is skewed towards previously low attaining pupils.

          • Mark Watson

            So what’s the solution?

            Genuine question, but not expecting anyone to have the answer to hand as it’s the holy grail!

            As I see it every system has good points (the reasons why it was introduced) and the potential to have negative (often unintended) consequences.

            So if we have a system like League Tables the way forward is to identify the problems (off-rolling, gaming, selection etc.) and put in place systems to address them. These systems won’t be 100% effective, and most definitely not straightaway, but it’s an iterative process that should result in continuous improvement.

      • “But League Tables were introduced in 1992 and so have no relationship with academies at all.”

        Oh yes they do – The first Academies gained great league table success through the vocational curriculum scam that LA schools had to ape or be out-competed. The only good thing that Gove did was to end it. Nothing has changed – Academies are always in the front line of the latest gaming scams eg


        “Schools Week revealed in April how the Harris Federation was entering hundreds of native English speakers in Year 11 into a qualification intended for pupils with English as a second language. Inspectors, in today’s report first reported by the Education Uncovered website, stated that “virtually all pupils in Year 11” at Harris Academy Orpington were entered for the qualification, despite the fact that 95 per cent of the cohort spoke English as a first language. Year 12 students who took the qualification last year said they did not know why they were entered and received little teaching in preparation.”

        Why are Academies so often scam pioneers? Because they can!

        Both Ofsted and the DfE usually turn a blind eye to Academy scandals.

    • Tom Burkard

      Computer Adaptive Tests are indeed wondrous things, but they are inescapably tests that measure fluid intelligence. They aren’t designed to measure learning. This is all very fine and well if we want to perpetuate schools that give an enormous advantage to middle-class kids.

  3. It’s true that some free schools are very good. But the number inspected is too small to sat the free school movement as a whole is wonderful.

    But if the author want to do that, then it’s worth remembering that while a larger proportion of free schools are outstanding than other types of school, a larger proportion are also inadequate. Some of these have closed, and when they do so they disappear from the data. Good wheeze, eh?