Free Schools and Ofsted: When the data tells you precisely nothing

21st March 2013

Last weekend the Independent ran a story on the fact that three Free Schools had been judged “not good” (i.e. requiring improvement). Its argument was that this showed the failure of the government’s flagship education policy. This is far from being the case: If it shows anything it shows that Free Schools are no better or worse than any other school (echoing a long held view at LKMco that no particular ‘type’ of school is any better than any other).  However, as @jr_climbing pointed out in a tweet this week, what is more likely, is that it shows precisely nothing.

In the UK 70% of schools are judged to be “better than good”. The nine Free Schools inspected so far have shown themselves to be broadly in line with this: 66% were good, 33% less than good. These schools have not failed. In fact, if we compare them to the total for schools inspected last year they actually outperform them: 61% of schools inspected in 2011-12 were good or better. On top of that, it’s not surprising that things are not easy for Free Schools: schools spend years developing, improving and getting to good/outstanding and setting up a school is ridiculously difficult (as research outlined by Laura in her booklet “The 6 Predictable Failures of Free Schools… and how to avoid them” has shown) – just try recruiting a Head Teacher before being certain that the school will open! Of course, if Free Schools *are* no better than others, the question to ask is why, aside from politicking, should they be worthy of particular promotion and expenditure?
On the other hand, it is more likely that the data shows nothing. With nine Free Schools inspected so far, each one represents 11% of the current statistic. It would therefore only take one inspection to have got a different grading (or for one more inspection to take place) for the Independent’s analysis to have shown that Free Schools are almost 10% better (or 10% worse) than other schools.
+1 and – 1 refer to the outcome if one Free School inspected had been judged differently
Whilst the Local School Network was one of the first places to debunk the DfE’s nonsensical claims about the success of sponsor academies (also reported here), it has fallen into the same trap as the DfE this time by jumping on the first statistic that suited its political motives. At this rate we risk each side in the Free Schools debate taking it in turns to declare victory, depending on the latest Ofsted outcome. Debating education policy in these terms is dangerous and unhelpful. Worst of all it is unfair to the teachers and leaders working hard to make their school a success- regardless of their school’s legal structure.