'Yesterday's Progress 8 numbers point to a rosy future for free schools'

20th January 2017 at 13:26
Take a look under the bonnet of the government's vast data release and you find a positive story for free schools, writes one of their most vocal advocates

The secondary school league tables published yesterday contain a mixed picture for free schools. 

On the one hand, results for post-16 free schools were fantastic. Admittedly, we’re talking about a small number (only 15 schools), but they topped the charts for both progress and attainment, recording better A-level results than any other type of school. A whopping 27.8 per cent of students got A/A/B or better, compared to a national average in the state sector of 19.9 per cent.

Some individual post-16 free schools did extraordinarily well. At King’s College London Maths School, for instance, 94.5 per cent of A level entrants got A*/A/B, making it one of the top five state schools in the country. Fourteen of King’s students have received an offer from Oxbridge – an impressive 23 per cent of the year group. Critics will attribute this to the fact that it’s highly selective, but it also achieved a value added score of 0.71, making it, by this measure, the fifth-best state school in the country. 

Another big success story is the London Academy of Excellence, with 20 of its students getting offers from Oxford and Cambridge this year. Again, this success isn’t just down to its high entrance requirements. The LAE achieved a value added score of 0.56, placing it in the top 20 for A level progress. 

The 91 free schools that posted GCSE results fared less well – at least, that’s the impression given by glancing at the DfE data released on Thursday. These free schools were at the bottom of the league, both for Progress 8 and Attainment 8. 

'Incredible success stories'

But hold on a minute. A closer look reveals that the DfE has included all 28 university technical colleges and all 31 studio schools in its definition of ‘free schools’. That seems a bit rum, considering these schools are vocational in nature and, for the most part, children don’t enter them until Year 10. Attainment in eight academic subjects isn’t a priority for the majority of them and it doesn’t seem fair to award these schools a Progress 8 score when children have only been at them for two years. If you assess them by more appropriate metrics, such as the percentage of graduates in employment, education or training, they fare much better.

The same can be said for the 32 free schools if you take UTCs and studio schools out of the picture. According to this narrower definition, they’re the second highest performers of all types of schools, sitting just below academy convertors when it comes to Progress 8 and Attainment 8. 

Here, too, there are some incredible success stories. For instance, Tauheedul Islam Boys’ School in Blackburn posted a Progress 8 score of 1.15, making it the third best-performing school in the country by this measure. Ninety five per cent of its GCSE students got five A*-C including English and maths.

Closer to my heart was the performance of the West London Free School, which I co-founded in 2011 and which two of my children attend. We posted our first set of GCSE results in 2016 and did okay, with 77 per cent getting five A*-C including English and maths. Twenty-nine per cent of disadvantaged pupils achieved the EBacc, almost three times higher than the national average of 11.7 per cent.

Across all 32, 16 per cent of disadvantaged children achieved the EBacc, 50 per cent better than the national average. In other respects, however, free schools could do better, including the West London Free School. Our Progress 8 measure was 0.14 (would be 0.17 if we weren’t forced to include a pupil who left in January 2016 for the independent sector and then didn’t take any GCSEs) and for free schools in general it was -0.02.

The DfE caveats the data it provides about free schools, UTCs and studio schools by pointing out that the numbers are “too small to allow robust conclusions about their performance”. The free school data is also skewed by the fact that about a third of the total posting GCSE results are independent convertors. As each year passes, the data will become more and more solid and as it does I’m confident the performance of free schools will be stronger and stronger.

Toby Young is director of New Schools Network

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