As regular readers will know, I am not a great fan of free schools. Not because I don’t agree with the principle of different groups running schools funded by the State, because I have no problem with that concept per se. After all, ever since 1870, churches, charities, and many other voluntary bodies have been funded by the State to run schools even before the Labour/Tory academy programme was developed. Generally, in the past such bodies have open schools within an arrangement that has at least some local coherence, even if that has meant some parents weren’t able to persuade their local authority to fund a school that they wanted. The present arrangement sees Westminster ignore the views of local authorities, and even their planning for future places can be disregarded by Ministers.
I agree with Mr Gove that J. S. Mill’s view was that the State shouldn’t necessarily run schools. I think he said that it was the role of the State to see its citizens were educated, but not necessarily to do the education themselves. Where I probably differ from Mr Gove is that I see the State as the default provider of schooling, not the funder of first resort. I find it frankly incredible that a Conservative minister can advocate an open-ended cheque to any parent who wants the State to fund their child’s education, especially in a time of economic uncertainty and with so many other demands upon the resources of the State.
All this is by way of a rather long preamble about the fact that Ofsted has released inspection data on the first 81 free schools as what were originally known as ‘additional schools’ are now universally known.
Four free schools were judged ‘outstanding’. Together they currently educated some 350 pupils at the date of their inspection, but their pupil numbers will grow over the next few years as they develop to serve all year groups. In one case the inspection report noted that attendance didn’t meet the school’s target, and was only broadly in line with national trends. In another school judged outstanding the inspector noted that the school would need to: Raise achievement further by ensuring that all lessons progress at an equally good pace, and pupils are encouraged to think critically about their learning. This was a comment I found slightly surprising for an ‘outstanding’ school.
Still it is interesting to know that these schools when inspected in numbers have a profile similar to the profile of schools in general, but that fact doesn’t assuage my concerns about their role in the education system as a whole. It is also surprising that in a free school in Tower Hamlets the proportion of pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium is well below the national average as that is probably not typical off the borough as a whole or perhaps even of the faith schools across the borough. Indeed, one Limehouse community primary school, not all that far away, had 61% of pupils on free school meals in January 2012 according to the Ofsted dashboard. No doubt, as the number of pupils of school age increases at that free school so too will the percentage of those on free school meals, although whether from both the 50% of faith places or the other 50% reserved for community applicants will not be clear for some time to come. By then we will have a lot more comparison data on free schools and, hopefully, no more will be in the placed in the inadequate category as was one of the original 81.