Research reveals that Free Schools cherry-pick pupils

25 Aug

According to recent research carried out by the Institute of Education (IOE) University of London, free schools are not well serving the neediest children in their areas. It shows that schools in this flagship-Government programme are opening in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but are taking fewer poor children (those receiving free meals) than the other local schools.

Only 17.5% of secondary pupils were entitled to free school meals and 13.5% of primary pupils – compared to averages of 22% and 18% in the neighbourhoods in which they have been established.

Primary children who enter free schools are academically ahead of their peers. They have significantly higher levels of attainment than the average, not only for their neighbourhoods, but also for the country as a whole. “When it comes to evaluating the performance of primary free schools, it will be important to examine their value-added, rather than their academic outcomes, which are likely to be better than average because of their intakes,” the researchers advise.

“It appears that, so far, the places in reception at free schools are being filled by children who are somewhat less disadvantaged and more advanced in their development than the average. This outcome may be disappointing for the government, which had hopes that its free schools policy would be a vehicle for delivering social justice,” says Francis Green, Professor of Labour Economics and Skills Development at the Institute, who led the research published by the Economics and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded Centre for Learning and Life Chances.

The research was carried out on the admissions intake of pupils in 88 primary and 63 secondary free schools during the first three years of their existence.   (Free schools were created in September 2011 by the former secretary of state Michael Gove in an attempt to give parents more choice and create better social mobility.  They have been modelled on Swedish Free Schools and American Charter Schools.)

The key findings of the report were as follows.

(a)          The government’s anticipation that free schools would emerge in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is, on average, vindicated: looking at the neighbourhoods of free schools, one can see that there is a slightly higher proportion of children entitled to free school meals (FSM) when compared to the rest of England: 22% compared with 17% at secondary level, and 18% compared with 16% at primary level.

(b)          However, critics’ concerns that the schools might become socially selective are also supported. Within the neighbourhood, fewer pupils actually attending the free schools were eligible for FSM – only 17.5% for secondary schools and 13.5% in primary schools. The net effect is that the free secondary school pupils themselves are close to average for all secondary schools, and the free schools primary school pupils very slightly better off.

(c)           In terms of prior achievement, there is a marked difference at primary level: the free schools children have a distinctly higher Foundation Stage Profile mean score (0.33) than elsewhere in the neighbourhood and the rest of England where it is close to zero. The difference is statistically significant at a high level.

The upshot of this will be that Ofsted will be scrutinising very closely the value added – i.e. progress that pupils in free schools makes and compare that to the national average.

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