Posted by Jake on Saturday, December 14, 2013 with 3 comments | Labels: Article, Big Society, education, Graphs, inequality
A National Audit Office (NAO) report published in December 2013 reported that 'free schools' were costing twice as much (on average £6.6 million per school) as expected to build. On the day of publication the media herd wallowed in this cost-doubling story.
What was less talked about is the report's observation that even though the schools' costs were double the original estimate, they still cost 45% less than building a traditional school. The NAO report stated:
Costs have been lower partly because the Department has taken an innovative approach to providing premises for Free Schools. It has used significant numbers of existing buildings to reduce costs, including properties not traditionally used for schools (Figure 13).
the Department also used less extensive building specifications than on its previous building programmes, such as Building Schools for the Future. It also adopted new space standards, which were approximately 15 per cent smaller for secondary and 5 per cent smaller for primary Schools than existing standards.
With all the evangelical talk of a 'free school revolution' could grubby cost-cutting be the real motivation? Or was the cheapness just collateral to improving educational standards? The same NAO report sheds some light on this.
Figure 16 from the report shows the results of OFSTED inspections in the 2012/13 academic year. The Free Schools apparently handily beating Academies and common-or-garden Local Authority schools:
|Red = % 'Good' or 'Outstanding', Yellow = % 'Needs improvement' or 'Unsatisfactory'|
However, anyone who read the text just after this graph in the NAO report would have noticed:
- Academy and Local Authority schools inspected in 2012/13 would have not included schools judged as 'Outstanding' in the previous year. This is because a school judged 'Outstanding' does not get re-inspected for 5 years. This is equivalent to saying if a footballer scores a goal in a match then he can't play in the next five, which inevitably weakens the team.
- Of the free schools there were 17 primary free schools, 14 of which were judged to be in line with or better than other neighbouring schools. However, of the 5 secondary free schools none were better than neighbouring schools - 2 were judged to be in line, and three below the standard of their neighbours.
Is there a correlation between the longer distance travelled and the better performance of free school primaries compared to free school secondaries? Are free school primaries casting a wider net, disdaining some of the local smallfry? The report states that the Department of Education had exempted many of the free schools from the normal Schools Admissions Code followed by Academies and Local Authority schools, giving 'founders' preferential access. Once the gobbet of founders' children, a self-selecting highly motivated group, has passed through the system, what will happen then? Other potential correlations are mentioned in the report:
- Free school students tend to come from wealthier families: only 16% of free school students get their school meals for free, compared to 25% in neighbouring schools.
- Only 18% of free school students have English as an additional language (EAL, where English is not their first language), compared to 36% in neighbouring schools.
The PISA report in December 2013 comparing international educational attainment caused all sorts of anxiety over the UK's stagnation in pupil attainment. This report provides more insights than just the crude country rankings. Among many other things the Pisa report lists important factors that impact student performance:
Students whose parents have high expectations for them– who expect them to earn a university degree and work in a professional or managerial capacity later on – tend to have more perseverance, greater intrinsic motivation to learn mathematics, and more confidence in their own ability to solve mathematics problems than students of similar socio-economic status and academic performance, but whose parents hold less ambitious expectations for them.
Lack of punctuality and truancy are negatively associated with student performance: on average across OECD countries, arriving late for school is associated with a 27-point lower score in mathematics, while skipping classes or days of school is associated with a 37-point lower score in mathematics – the equivalent of almost one full year of formal schooling.
Across most countries and economies, socio-economically disadvantaged students not only score lower in mathematics, they also reported lower levels of engagement, drive, motivation and self-beliefs. Resilient students, disadvantaged students who achieve at high levels, break this link; in fact, they share many of the characteristics of advantaged high-achievers.
Recognising that poor behaviour is a central issue Wilshaw announced inspectors will make "no-notice visits to schools where we have identified behaviour as a particular concern."
However he regards issues from outside school as teachers' excuses. No no-notice visits will be made to homes, television studios, cinemas, games and video makers to berate them for the bad luck they bring children.
Good schools are critical to good education, and merit rigorous inspection. But students spend most of their lives and are most receptive to influences outside the classroom. OFSTED and successive governments' determination to ignore this shows that some people really do never learn.