It's still too soon to tell if the Tories have made the right choices on educationby Emran Mian / March 9, 2015 / Leave a comment
If anyone was hoping that Michael Gove’s move from Education Secretary to Chief Whip in last year’s reshuffle might slow down the free schools programme then David Cameron has ended that hope today. Speaking as Prime Minister, he announced a new round of approvals—49 new free schools—taking the total number approved during this Parliament to over 400. Speaking as Leader of the Conservative Party, he made a promise to open 500 more during the next five years.
It’s a promise that involves two gambles: first, that there will be sufficient new applications to open free schools; and second, that opening free schools justifies new investment at a time when the education budget will be under more pressure.
The first gamble is made easier by the fact that free schools are beginning to look more and more like established parts of the schools system. Policy Exchange, a think tank, published a report on the same day as David Cameron’s speech showing that the composition of who is approved to open free schools has changed significantly since the start of the programme. In the beginning, up to a third were community or parents’ groups; that proportion has dropped below a fifth. By contrast, sponsors that already run more than one academy are now responsible for more than a third of new free schools, up from below 15 per cent in the first three waves of approvals.
These academy school chains are likely to use the free schools programme as their way to keep expanding over the next Parliament, if the Conservatives are in government; that desire for expansion combined with a rising school age population will probably mean that there are sufficient applications for new free schools. There may be a propaganda problem—large, faceless chains provide less romance than artisan schools—but there isn’t likely to be an implementation problem.
The second gamble though is more risky. Ofsted and the Education Select Committee say it is too early to take a view on the quality of education provided by free schools or their impact on the rest of the system. The Education Datalab looked at exam results for pupils in areas served by free schools. They found a general trend of improvement but the effect is small and “appears to have started some time ago—long before the free schools were proposed and opened.”
David Cameron though relies on new analysis from the same Policy Exchange report I mentioned earlier, which argues that not only are free schools themselves performing well but their presence is associated with other schools in the neighbourhood performing better than the national average too. In theory, this makes sense: new school opens; parents suddenly have more choice over where to send their kids; the new school doesn’t attract pupils unless it focuses really hard on quality; other schools have to do the same or risk losing pupils, perhaps in particular those who are the most motivated. The problem is that one or more alternative explanations may be just as plausible. Try this one: new school opens; this eases pressure on places at all schools in the neighbourhood; suddenly teachers are teaching to slightly smaller classes; results improve. Or even this one: schools on the whole are getting better, and it’s a statistical fluke that schools around free schools are doing better than the national average.
I’d love to know which theory is right in practice. Policy Exchange make a persuasive case that free schools drive up standards at neighbouring schools too. But the sample size on many of their results is very small, precisely why others think it is too early to say what the impact has been. This problem will solve itself over time. By the end of the next Parliament, it should be possible to be more definitive about what’s going on. In the meantime though, the Conservatives have made their gamble. The good news for them is that by the time we can judge whether they got it right or not, we’ll probably have forgotten all about it.