Saturday 14 December 2013

Saturday, December 14, 2013 Posted by Jake 3 comments Labels: , , , ,
Posted by Jake on Saturday, December 14, 2013 with 3 comments | Labels: , , , ,

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.

Free Schools are 45% cheaper on average to build than traditional schools, helped by having less space per student (15% less in secondary schools!) and by moving into unused former hospital, police, office and retail buildings.

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.
Figure 17 shows that primary free school children travelled more than twice the distance to get to school compared to local authority and academy primary school students. Secondary free school students travelled significantly further that secondary local authority schools, though the difference is very much less than for primary schools.

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.
And yet these advantages seem to be subsumed in the disadvantages that come with a Free School (whatever they may be) such that at Secondary level no improvement in performance is discernible according to the 2012-13 OFSTED inspections reported by the NAO. Even when the comparison is rigged by excluding Local Authority schools that achieved 'Outstanding' status the previous year. But at least the government will have saved money that would otherwise have to be spent on non-privately educated children.

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.

All these important factors come from outside school. And yet Sir Michael Wilshaw's OFSTED focusses on beating up schools while largely ignoring what happens outside the school gate. In his December 2013 speech "The Unlucky Child" Wilshaw defines the difference between a 'lucky child' and an 'unlucky child' in terms of the nature of their school. 

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.


  1. Does the NAO finding include the hidden costs of things like local authorities having to hand over buildings that otherwise would have been sold off for the benefit of tax-payers?

  2. Institue of Education report:

    "Free schools opening in poor neighbourhoods but not reaching the poorest children

    07 August 2014

    Free schools are failing to serve the neediest children in their areas, according to a new study from the Institute of Education (IOE), London.

    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.

    "The net effect is that the free secondary school pupils themselves are close to average for all English secondary schools, and the free primary school pupils very slightly better off," says the study, published by the ESRC-funded Centre for Learning and Life Chances (LLAKES) and led by Francis Green, Professor of Labour Economics and Skills Development.

    In addition, 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 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 primary 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 Professor Green."

  3. BBC reports:

    "Ofsted to inspect but not judge academy chains

    Ofsted has been given the green light to take a closer look at the work of groups running chains of academies.

    But it will not be allowed to make judgments about whether a trust is effective or not.

    Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said the inspectorate should be able to publish information about the performance of academy chains.

    It comes after months of wrangling between the department and Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw on the issue.

    Sir Michael made repeated calls last year to be given explicit powers to inspect the head offices of academy chains, in the same way that Ofsted can look at local council children's services."


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