I enjoyed Jon Andrew’s blog post about his report for the Education Policy Institute (EPI) on free schools – and agree with his recommendation that more of them are needed in areas of entrenched underperformance. But I thought the spin on the report was slightly misleading.
The headline claims free schools "aren’t attracting a significant number of disadvantaged pupils" and Jon says there is a risk they will "encourage an increase in social segregation in our schools".
But this claim rests on just one of the findings in the report, namely, that the percentage of children on free school meals at those primary free schools set up in England’s most disadvantaged areas – defined as the bottom fifth – is lower than the percentage of children on free school meals in those areas.
What about some of the other findings? I include a few extracts from the report below:
- Once you move beyond the bottom fifth of areas, the rate of free school meal eligibility in free schools matches that of other schools. In the least deprived half of areas, free school meal eligibility is actually higher than that in other areas.
- We find that of the 10,000 11 year-olds that were in free schools in 2015-16, 17 per cent were eligible for free school meals (2 per cent higher than the average of all 11 year-olds).
- In secondary free schools, 14.2 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 13.8 per cent of pupils nationally.
- Pupils in free schools are much less likely to be from white British backgrounds than pupils in other state-funded schools. In primary free schools, 33 per cent of pupils are recorded as white British compared to 67.2 per cent of pupils nationally (equivalent figures for secondary schools are 44.9 and 69.5 per cent).
- Pupils in free schools are more likely to have a first language other than English than pupils in other state-funded schools. In primary free schools, 39.4 per cent of pupils have a first language that is other than English compared with 20.6 per cent of pupils nationally (equivalent figures for secondary schools are 24.9 and 16.2 per cent).
- Overall, pupils at free schools have a similar propensity to be eligible for free school meals or have special educational needs and disabilities as pupils at other state-funded schools.
In light of the above, it is not credible to claim that free schools are having difficulty attracting disadvantaged children or contributing to social segregation. On the contrary, I thought the EPI report did a good job of puncturing those myths.
It put paid to a number of other myths about free schools too, such as the belief that they are being set up in areas where they are not needed and are getting below-average results.
As the report points out, they have been set up in areas most in need of new places and in 2017 their students made above average progress between the ages of 11 and 16, coming joint top of the progress league table alongside academy converters.
The report also highlights the success of free schools at key stage 1, where pupils are more likely to achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics than any other type of school.
A more accurate summary of the report would be to say it found free schools have had a positive impact in London and the South East, reducing social segregation and raising standards, particularly for the most disadvantaged.
We need to extend those benefits to the rest of the country by putting rocket boosters under the programme in the East of England, the Midlands and the North.
Toby Young is director of the New Schools Network. He tweets @toadmeister