‘These GCSE results show that free schools are flourishing – they are Michael Gove’s legacy’

One free-school pioneer and evangelist argues that 2017’s GCSE results prove that the former education secretary’s commitment to parental groups and school autonomy was right

Toby Young

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The early indications are that GCSE results for free schools this year are exceptionally good.

At Reach Academy Feltham, a free school in Hounslow, west London, which opened in 2012, 98 per cent of the pupils got a grade 4 or above in English and 98 per cent got the same in maths – the equivalent of C or above in old money. That compares with a national figure of roughly 70 per cent getting 4 or above separately in both subjects.

Will this be enough to make Reach the top performer in the country? We won’t know that until October, when the Department for Education publishes its quality-assured key stage 4 data, but it could well be.

Last year, the comprehensive that topped the table – Gordon’s School in Woking, Surrey – saw 97 per cent of its students getting C or above in English and maths, and the top performer in 2015 was King Solomon Academy in Marylebone, central London, where 95 per cent of pupils got C or above. The percentage of Feltham’s students who got English and maths combined is 96 per cent. Incidentally, the school also did well on the percentage of pupils securing a "good pass" – 80 per cent got 5 or above in English and maths.

Another free school with stellar results is the Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School, in Blackburn, Lancashire, which got the third-highest Progress 8 score in the country in 2016 (+1.15). Seventy-five per cent of its students got 5 or above in English and maths this year, a figure rising to 93 per cent for 4 and above, with 63 per cent obtaining the English Baccalaureate. That’s particularly impressive when you consider that TIBHS is in one of England’s 12 "Opportunity Areas".

The same is true of Dixons Trinity Academy, which is in Bradford, West Yorkshire. Like Reach Feltham, Dixons Trinity posted its maiden set of GCSE results this year, and they are astonishing. Seventy per cent of its pupils got a 5 or above in English and maths, with 81 per cent at 4 and above and 51 per cent obtaining the EBacc.

I could go on. Other free schools getting 80 per cent or above this year when it comes to the percentage of pupils getting 4 or better in English and maths include King’s Leadership Academy in Warrington, Cheshire; Holyport College in Berkshire; Greenwich Free School, in south-east London; Dixons King’s Academy in Bradford; Holy Trinity School, in Kidderminster, Worcestershire; and the West London Free School, which I helped to set up in 2011.

We won’t know how well free schools have done in aggregate this year, compared with other types of school, until October, but the average looks set to be significantly higher than last year, when free schools came second in the Progress 8 table. My hope is that, collectively, they’ll top the table this year.

Pupils from disadvantaged familes

Critics will immediately ask whether the pupils at these schools are "representative". The answer is yes, at least as far as the percentage of pupils eligible for the pupil premium is concerned. At Reach Feltham, it’s 34.3 per cent, at Dixons Trinity it’s 36.8 per cent, at Greenwich Free School it’s 40.7 per cent, at Dixons King’s it’s 41.8 per cent and at the West London Free School it’s 38.5 per cent – all well above the national average of 29.3 per cent.

One of the striking things about these high-performing free schools is that they are all "Gromps" – schools that combine the academic rigour and strict discipline of grammars with the inclusive ethos of comprehensives. The New Schools Network recently published some research on the top 25 performers according to last year’s Progress 8 figures and the bottom 25, and found that the former were much more likely to be Gromps than the latter. We are planning to do a larger piece of research later this year in which we analyse over 200 schools based on this year’s GCSE results, but the success of these free schools suggests that 2017’s top performers will also be Gromps.

This ties in with a wealth of research evidence showing that "No Excuses" schools are the most effective type of school in the United States. "No Excuses" does not just refer to a particular approach to managing pupils’ behaviour; it also refers to the refusal of the schools to accept any excuses for poor pupil performance. Like Gromps, these schools typically have the following characteristics: strong discipline, smart school uniforms, high academic expectations, a commitment to getting every child into university, longer school days, younger-than-average teachers, traditional pedagogy (for example, teacher-led, whole-class instruction); and speedy interventions when children are getting left behind.

A recent article in Vox by Elizabeth Green, author of the New York Times 2014 bestseller Building a Better Teacher, summed up the achievements of these schools: “Looking at test scores, all the highest academic results ever produced for poor students and students of colour have come from No Excuses schools. Period.”

I firmly believe that it won’t be long before we can say the same of Gromps, with high-performing free schools in cities like Blackburn and Bradford leading the way.

These results are also testimony to Michael Gove's vision for free schools when he was education secretary. He believed that groups of parents and teachers, given the freedom to do it, could do a better job of running schools than politicians or bureaucrats. And he was right. This is his legacy.

Toby Young is a free schools founder and director of the New School Network. He tweets @toadmeister

Keep up to date with all the latest GCSE news, views and analysis on our GCSE hub.  ​

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