Mark Lehain is Interim Director of the New Schools Network, and Founder of the Bedford Free School.
Amidst all the discussion of Brexit, state-sponsored assassinations, and parliamentary bullying, some exceptionally good news about a flagship government policy passed largely unnoticed yesterday. Provisional results from this summer’s GCSE results were released, and they contained within them some stunning achievements by free schools. This is something that everyone should sing loud and proud about.
The students who sat GCSEs this summer at the 77 free schools with Year 11s managed to achieve an average Progress 8 score of 0.24. “Progress 8” is the main measure of performance at GCSE, and in layman’s terms, this result means that students in free schools got a quarter of a grade higher in every subject than they would have in an ‘average’ school. This is a stonking achievement, and real testament to the impact that free schools have made in driving up school improvement.
I’d also highlight that these results have been achieved by a cohort containing above average proportion of students on free school meals. That’s right: these schools have done far better than others, with kids who traditionally do far worse. Some critics of the policy have claimed that it was designed for middle-class parents to get a private school style education for their kids on the cheap.
The maths teacher in me feels obliged to point out that it is a relatively small sample of schools so far, but a leading education statistics authority – Becky Allen, Professor of Education at UCL – ran her own simulation of the data released yesterday and has shown them to still be statistically significant. These results are definitely not a fluke.
What’s more, we’re not relying on just one set of scores. Yesterday also saw the release of some headline A-Level results from this summer, and once again free schools excelled, with 23.6 per cent of students gaining AAB or higher compared to 19.2 per cent across the state-funded sector. This is again the second year they’ve achieved this.
Add to this free schools having the highest pass rates in the Year 1 Phonics Check and Key Stage One SATs, the only measure where they’re not the top ranked type of state school in one form or another is the Key stage Two SATS, and even here they’re in line with national averages.
With results like these it’s no surprise that Ofsted has rated free schools ‘Outstanding’ at a rate of nearly one in three, compared to a national average of 21 per cent. They’re proving successful at getting feet through the door as well, attracting more applications per places available than other schools.
For me, one of the most impressive parts is that free schools are making this impact while still proving cost-effective. Critics have leapt upon rumours of financial inefficiencies, but the truth is that across the cohort they’ve been 29 per cent cheaper than previous school building programmes.
I’m not blind to the fact that mistakes have been made along the way, but lessons have been learned and the process has been refined. We’ve got to a point where there is a highly effective means for opening up new schools in areas that desperately need them, so we need to make sure people are shouting about it. This includes the Government.
Up until recently it felt as though free schools were flying somewhat under the radar. While there have been lots of people like me doing our part to promote the policy – many in education genuinely believe that this is a really effective means of meeting family demand and driving up standards – at times it has felt a bit lonely. Even amongst Conservatives at this year’s Party Conference it felt like some members, councillors and even MPs had lost enthusiasm, or forgotten how important a policy it was and is.
This is why I was so glad to see both the Prime Minister and Secretary of State come out so strongly again for these schools in recent weeks. This is even more important given that Angela Rayner is clear that she will scrap the programme. If she was Education Secretary this would obviously be her right, but forget political ideology: they’re a massive success story by anyone’s standards, and this is probably something Conservatives should be shouting about.
Only a few years in, we can now see the impact these schools have, and there’s a real sense that the momentum is back behind the policy. Yesterday showed how good these schools can be – and so we need to keep pushing ahead with this programme, regardless of other political distractions.