Gove’s ‘Free School’ dossier is bad science

I’m a big fan of Ben Goldacre, the journalist who sniffs out ‘bad science‘ and exposes the way research is misused to justify ridiculous claims. He should take a look at Michael Gove’s dodgy dossier which sets out the case Free Schools. Buried right down the bottom of the page, after the press release, is the Department for Education’s interestingly titled ‘myth-buster‘ on Free Schools. It’s an unusual mix of hand-picked international comparisons, the Department’s own statistics, apparently solid research and some seriously questionable evidence.

Unfortunately what first grabs the eye is the sheer inconsistency of font (and font size) – it’s worth reading for this alone. How did such a sloppy document – on a subject so important – make it into the public domain? It suggests this document was chucked together with some haste – a blur of Googling and cutting and pasting – by a bureaucrat with only rudimentary computing skills: Times New Roman here, Arial there, a touch of size 12, then a smidge of 13. (It’s ironic that funds from the school technology budget are being diverted to pay for the ‘free schools’, perhaps they could be best spent showing our friends at the DfE how to use Word. If a student in my class had done this, I would have done my ‘teacher-frown’ and asked him to go and do it properly. We have standards, you see. Or maybe it’s an act of sabotage by an anti-free school pen-pusher – perhaps we should be grateful).

On the substance, the document does a remarkable job of conflating ‘Academy School’ with ‘Free School’, to the point where the two different school structures are apparently interchangeable. It does the same for ‘Charter School’ – the autonomous schools in the U.S. – and the U.K version of ‘Free School’ (there are of course similarities but international comparisons should be heavily qualified and, in this document, they are not).

This conflation allows the DfE to claim that ‘Free schools are in demand’ because a) Charter Schools in the U.S. are over-subscribed, b) On average there are 2.6 applications a day for Academy status (in the U.K.) and, c) Polling by the Confederation of Swedish Business found that Swedish parents scored free schools more highly than their public equivalents (this last one, incidentally, comes from a ‘Policy Exchange’ report – a right-wing think tank). Is it just me or does that fail to convince?

Elsewhere in the document, a positive report by the National Audit Office into attendance at Academy schools results in a claim that ‘Free Schools improve discipline‘; statistics which show there are more ‘free school meal children’ in Academy schools are used to ‘debunk’ the myth that ‘Free Schools will only benefit the well-off’; we are reassured that ‘Free Schools‘ won’t neglect SEN pupils because Academies have a higher proportion of SEN children than the national average.

One, two, all or none of these findings may be meaningful in some other context, but one things for certain: they do not make the case, as DfE is seeking to do, that ‘free schools are in demand/improve behaviour/improve attendance’. It is simply not possible to say the introduction of one variable (an Academy school, or a Charter School in a different country) will result in the same effects when an different variable is applied (a Free School). This is pretty shoddy stuff for such a weighty topic. Imagine a new medical intervention being introduced based on such an amateurish, convoluted evidence base.

Throughout, selective data from the U.S. is used to ‘prove’ that free schools in the UK will be a force for public good, as if our social, cultural and economic contexts are identical. Ignoring the research into education published by RAND (best known for military research and the nuclear strategy, known fittingly as MAD: mutually assured destruction), here’s just one example of why this is not the case:

I took a look at one of the research documents cited. This one was put together by a team including staff from Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania. The methodology seemed sound, it was well-written and claims were cautiously made; I have no complaints about the research.

But when the researchers set out what distinguished Charter Schools from their public school equivalents they found the former were effective because: they required students to wear a school uniform; students took on average two ‘evaluations’ each year to track student progress; parents of students in Charter Schools sign a ‘parent contract’; teachers get paid for taking on additional duties.

This, they claim, contrasts them with public schools and hence raises standards.

What’s the problem? Well, based on a sample of one (my school): we have a school uniform; our pupils take three (not two) internal evaluations each year; parents sign a ‘parent contract’; and teachers get paid for taking on additional responsibilities. Moreover, this is common practice in schools in the UK. So, in these cases, Charter Schools have fixed a problem that simply does not exist in the UK.

This does leave the other distinctive features of Charter Schools: longer school hours and a longer school week; and performance pay for teachers. That’s the nub of the issue: train more teachers so schools can provide a longer day and pay teachers well when they are successful. This should be focus for the debate, the main attraction: more quality teacher time for children.

Free schools are a side-show. If they want to persuade us otherwise, the message for the Department for Education is: must try harder.



Filed under Academy Schools, Free Schools, Michael Gove, Policy, Politics - general, Schools

27 responses to “Gove’s ‘Free School’ dossier is bad science

  1. You are right. Free Schools are just a side show, mock liberalism from the Tories who want to hand ‘power’ and ‘choice’ to parents. But sadly it is only a certain kind of parent who will get this choice. And it’s the children of parents who have no choice that will suffer. That is why Free Schools are a dangerous side show that will not solve the problems of state education nor close the gap between the most able in society and the most unable.

  2. 2me2you

    Outlining rather poorly presented plans to introduce a multi tier system into education in the same week as plans for a new hospital is scrapped. Tories attacking poor? Tories trying to ringfence/create/grab resources for the affluent? I think so…

    Comparisons to Sweden are largely irrelevant as well. When they introduced ‘free schools’ there was no alternative to the state system at all. This country already has a host of grammar schools, fee based public & private schools etc – so the comparitive impact will be at the very best irrelevant and marginal.

  3. Not well enough versed in the Canadian terminology to be certain, but I’m gathering from the exchanges that “free schools” are analagous to US Charter schools. The Charter School fraud in the US is certainly a diversion from addressing the real needs of the public schools. There’s no there there…We do have good experience with a model that works: magnet schools, where innovative programs are supported financially based on their success at improving student outcomes. The only flaw there was the bizarre logic, so common in the public sector, where upon showing the success of the innovation, funding is then terminated.

    • Thanks for comment. The free schools in the blog are a proposal by the UK Government – based in part on a similar approach in Sweden, as well as the Charter schools you are familiar with. Interesting that you describe Charter Schools as a ‘fraud’ – be good to hear more on this. Also ‘magnet schools’ – be good to hear more on this too…

      • What I see as fraudulent about the Charter School phenomenon in the US is that it is billed and marketed as an educational “reform,” when the roots of the movement are right-wing and evangelical Christian attempts to destroy public schools, or at least starve them of funds, on the one hand, and parents’ attempts to “rescue” their children from having to go to school with people of color. There is no pedagogical content to the notion of a Charter school, it’s simply a way to avoid public oversight. The fact that a few Charter schools have been formed with sound pedagogical bases and a real desire to improve outcomes for students does not change the basic fact that the “movement” for Charter schools is at its roots anti-democratic.

        The magnet school movement was part of the early response in the US to mandatory busing for desegregation. The idea was that if schools in low-income and non-white neighborhoods were given the funding to create model programs based on educational innovations, whites would voluntarily have their children bused to those schools. I worked at an elementary school in Watsonville, CA, from 1990-2000 which started out with a magnet bilingual program, where we had three full-time release teachers, one each for science, music and the arts, and PE. Each grade level sent their students to one of those three classes at the same time, so all the teachers at that grade level had one period a day to collaborate and prepare together–unheard of at the elementary level in the US.

        Having shown the model worked wonderfully both for student outcomes and staff morale and productivity, we were then cut off from our funding as a result of our success.

      • Great post – thanks for taking the time. Your point about Charter schools and absence of pedagogical content is key. We spend too much time thinking about school structures as if they somehow translate directly to enhance a child’s cognitive process. It’s politically unexciting but if we want radical educational transformation, get better teachers.

  4. Roger Neilson

    Thank you a really good analysis.

  5. Pingback: The Dodgy Dossier on Free Schools : John Connell: The Blog

  6. Colin Chinn

    Yes, agree shoddy research – but it seems Gove has it in his head this is the way forward politically and I suspect there will be a bottomless pit of funding to ensure there is no failure ! Funds diverted away from other schools of course and any other labour flavoured educaton initiatives.

    • Doesn’t seem likely that there will be a bottomless pit of funding given the current financial circumstances. At the margins there will probably be something as an incentive to further policy. This is politics after all, why would one expect rational science? Fundamentally, the Tories believe in organisational independence and Labour in larger administrative structures. Those belief systems are really what it all boils down to.

      • Interesting comments Ian and Colin, thanks for posting them. I’d hope that we could begin to move beyond simple political hunches and prejudices when formulating public policy. My particular beef with the free school ‘dossier’ is that it is an attempt to use ‘rational science’ but – even on a cursory analysis – is half-baked and ridiculously partial. I’d disagree with Gove passionately, but respect him more, if he just said: stuff the evidence, mass public funding for schools has had it’s day, let business have a go.

  7. Very much enjoyed this and will re-tweet. Interesting stuff. In the US there is a lot of anti-charter chatter going on at the moment too.

    • Thanks Sarah. Yes, Charter stuff looks very interesting. It could be that the two models – Swedish and American – of free schools are not all they are cracked up to be. Fred Mindlin’s comments on this blog suggest they are not something we should be rushing to replicate.

  8. Not only are they not “free” but all schools ICT budgets have been robbed and if schools have already spent their HT grant they will have the money “clawed back”.

    Fair,Free and Responsible? I think not!

  9. Of course politicians always try to use “evidence” to back their beliefs. I don’t think they are saying mass public funding has had its day – Ok, there will be a reduction in real terms because “there is no money left in the treasury” but the philosophical issue is more on school independence versus collective organisations. GM schools were in the same vein so I don’t think it is too surprising that the Tories would reawaken a similar policy. It’s more a matter of whether you believe schools can be self-managing or need additional bureaucratic support. Difficult to be scientific on that because there are so many variables to control. To me a large school has the economy of scale to be self-managing, a small primary does not. So if we were objective we would also consider federations of eg a secondary and a group of primary schools with the rationale of being a big enough unit to be administratively viable but small enough to further personal relationships. There is in fact quite a lot of research evidence on optimum sizes for organisations.

  10. Another interesting article. Thank you. I still can’t agree with you on this subject, however. The real issue behind the debate is whether our comprehensive, state system needs preserving or not. To my mind, whilst the idea of state funded education should be protected at all costs, they have become too rigid, too big, too results driven to affect much social change. Free Schools, on the other hand, may offer us the opportunity for greater community participation, a more flexible curriculum, and a wider variety of pedagogical approaches. They therefore could help us to develop a much more democratic educational system, than the one we currently have.

    Admittedly, it probably isn’t the Tories intention, but we are being offered a way to empower local communities; if only the Left could see it. At present, those whom we label as being of a lower social-economic class have no say in how their children are schooled. Despite the rhetoric, most state schools offer a homogenized pedagogy, despite the noticeable failure to improve social mobility that is so apparent. These communities – whom it is just so easy to dismiss as too apathetic or too troubled to care – might just surprise us all if we allow them to participate.

    • Thanks Mart. A well-argued response! A few quick thoughts:

      1) I think the sense that state school are controlled in terms of their pedagogical approach is over-stated (not by you, but in the discourse on education policy). As a teacher I have complete freedom to teach how I want and am free to pursue innovative approaches if I wish (within the reasonable confines of my school’s aims and objectives). But the more controlling moments of the last Government have resulted in large cohort of teachers who instinctively look to be instructed about how to teach. This is an issue of culture and perception I think (not school structures).

      2) I also think you are right to say this is an issue for the Left. The risk is that Labour falls back on (just) criticising and defending, without presenting alternatives. That’s their challenge for opposition and for whichever Miliband wins…

      3) I would be amazed if this empowers disadvantaged groups as you suggest. I would love to be proved wrong, but ten years down the line, rather than an awakening of parent power, I expect we will have three or four large corporations running significant numbers of schools.

      Thanks again for the comment, very interesting debate.

      • Dependency culture is an issue. I don’t think teachers have complete freedom to teach what they want, there is a statutory curriculum although it is more flexible than many people want to admit. I was a member of the SLT that set up the first CTC 22 years ago and we experienced all the same fears of large corporations. My experience was that fear was over-stated. The main positive was innovative people willing to try new things, teachers and sponsors. There were sponsors who were a clueless pain in the rear, but then again I have come across education officials just the same. I don’t really think we are talking about state funded as opposed to private sector funded, the debate is the mechanism for state funding and who controls the resources and the curriculum. Give it direct to schools and some will do a lot better and some will do a lot worse. Do we want levelling to the middle or freedom to innovate that will probably be accompanied by worse failures too? The Tory policy is to only give freedom to those schools that prove they can handle it but that is also not as straightforward as it sounds. For me, people make things work so motivating people, especially those with the capacity to initiate, lead and sustain improvement is the most important consideration. Dependency culture does not help such people flourish but there is of course the counter-argument that this is elitist because fewer people are self-motivated achievers than not. (10% of the population according to the research – maybe we should be teaching people in ways to raise that percentage 🙂 )

      • Good points. Just to clarify – my point was that teachers have freedom about how to teach – rather than the ‘what’. Although, as you say the curriculum is more flexible than some people think – so, all in all, there is enough room for creativity and innovation within the current system. It does take me back to my original blog: free schools are a side-show. Outstanding teaching is what cuts the mustard.

  11. Do you think we can really draw such a distinction between the how and what of teaching? After all, if the exam is all about facts, a very good teaching method in the widest educational sense might not get the results. Then the school slips down the league tables and suddenly it has inspectors in who have their own view of how things should be done. I used to lead school inspection teams and while in theory ignoring non-statutory guidance is perfectly OK legally, it takes a brave person to do it because if things go wrong they are leaving themselves very exposed. This is why I think the working environment can make a significant difference to what actually happens in practice. Can we build a national system that is solely reliant on all teachers being outstanding? If so I’d have thought that the argument would be more in favour of just leaving them to get on with it and getting rid of all the supporting bureaucracy.

    • I do think there is a distinction between the how and the what. Any subject or topic or lesson (the ‘what’) can be taught in countless different ways, some more effective than others. The how also involves relationships between teacher and pupil which can vary enormously from one class to the next – relationships which in many ways shape the learning process and outcome.

      I don’t take the same view about non-statutory guidance and inspections. If a teacher can justify methods and use assessment to demonstrate results then that’s better than endlessly playing safe in order to tick boxes just in case the inspector pops in. A willingness to take risks is no bad thing in the classroom – it would be dull without it. A good school and Head would back this and not leave people ‘exposed’ as you suggest. I’m not suggesting that the system should be ‘solely reliant’ on teachers being outstanding but that in my view is the defining characteristic that will raise standards.

      Last point: it depends what you mean by ‘supporting bureaucracy’. Teachers can’t work or innovate in isolation. Some of the so-called bureaucracy helps teachers to teach, and to improve practice. That’s not to say the support is perfect or can’t be significantly improved but I think complete removal would be counter-productive.

  12. Clearly the how and what are not identical but there is interdependency. A willingness to take risk is no bad thing but in observing hundreds of lessons I’d say it is relatively rare. That then begs the question of why? The quality of teaching is the most important thing in motivating attainment, no argument with that. Some bureaucracy might help good teachers teach excellently but that isn’t my experience. It tends to be there to stop mediocre and bad teachers being a disaster. I have rarely found the strongest practitioners need it (especially now the internet can provide most of the information anyone is likely to need). Most bureaucracies become self-serving with a focus on process not outcome because they live by process and then spawn more process. Since I have been effectively self-employed for the last 17 years I have a very different view of things from when I was teaching and working for government quangos. The main reason I gave all that up was the freedom to innovate and do things I thought were important rather than what other people told me was important. If I get it wrong I simply don’t pay the mortgage.

  13. Laura M

    Pencilandpapertest – thank you for making the point that teacher quality is the most important thing. All this tinkering with ‘the system’ means teachers spending more time and energy focusing on issues outside the classroom rather than on student learning. If only things could be left for, say, five years with only a relentless focus on increasing the quality of pedagogy we would be so much more better off than we will be after any current policy.

    In response to Ian I think there are two things to say here, (1) since Labour came in I’ve found strong teachers often don’t see the bureaucracy. They will do what needs to be done in order to get the learning done. While in the late 80s this was frowned on, my experience of challenging inner-city schools in the last 5 years has been most schools are so worried about other issues they are willing to let ‘weird teaching’ go as long as it GETS RESULTS. BUT.. I admit…(2) this differs across schools. Some are incredibly prescriptive, others insanely innovative and flexible. Even the strongest teacher can be ground down by an overly rigid SLT who ‘tell off’ innovative teachers.

    However, I can’t see that Free Schools will change this. Most Free Schools are being headed by people with *very* fixed ideas about what they want in schools, especially around types of rote learning, curriculum, expectations on grades, behaviour, etc. That’s precisely the kind of thing that clips the wings of many good teachers and this is why I think the Free Schools – in the long-run – will not be the panacea for increasing education *quality*. They will be a way to quieten those who usually shout loudest, but they won’t actually enable and encourage quality teaching. More is the shame.

  14. “I think there are two things to say here, (1) since Labour came in I’ve found strong teachers often don’t see the bureaucracy. They will do what needs to be done in order to get the learning done.”

    That doesn’t seem to fit with

    “All this tinkering with ‘the system’ means teachers spending more time and energy focusing on issues outside the classroom rather than on student learning.”

    Take the specialist schools programme. It started with an application of 6 or 7 pages and ended up with 80 pages of guidance and forms so complex senior managers were taking half a term to fill them in and still getting their bids turned down. That is bureaucracy diverting resources directly out of the classroom in order to give schools back money conditionally that was top sliced from their budgets in the first place.

    “as long as it GETS RESULTS” – yes in terms of AAT points in league tables. Hopefully, there is more to education than that. Look at the bureaucracy in this. Awarding Bodies have to deal with up to 5 different quangos to get qualifications accredited. Typically a secondary school spends over 100,000 a year on exams which often don’t contribute anything significant to the learning process other than providing a focus for measurable results. That pressures people to teach to tests.

    I don’t know how you know who will take over free schools and how fixed are their ideas – seems you have some fixed ideas of your own 😉 I heard all the same emotive objections when I was part of the SLT of the first CTC. “Trojan horse for grammar schools according to Jack Straw”. When I explained what we were doing off the record he said it was what Labour would do too and they did, extending that policy through Academies and the Specialist Schools programme. Rote learning in CTCs or specialist schools? Back in 1988, electronic registration, timetabled enrichment to let children explore particular interests and guarantee entitlement. If you read the scare stories at that time you would have though Lord Hanson would be running all the schools. In fact some CTC Principals were wacky and did some daft things, but that is why I say that less central control will lead to more diversity some better some worse. Whether that diversity is good or bad depends on how you see things.

    Rote learning is an interesting one in the context of scientific approaches. When they were trialling Sesame Street with children, the first shows were a disaster because they couldn’t hold the children’s interest. They discovered that young children actually respond well to repetitive reinforcement with counting and similar activities that would traditionally be deemed “rote learning”. Seems that politics rather than science had affected the accepted wisdom of how children learn. The adult educators that input into the design of the early shows were putting in things that they thought would be interesting to them and this was very different from what actually interested the target age group. So I think that education as a whole has a lot to learn about scientific and objective methods before jumping to conclusions about what are clearly broad political philosophical decisions rather than education operational interventions.

    Curriculum on-line is another one. More than £500 million cost to the tax payer – that is about £50k for every lesson from 5-16 in the National Curriculum. Do we have freely available differentiated on-line resources to support the full NC with a range of progression routes to show for this huge amount of money? Contrast the value for the tax payer with say Wikipedia. Wikipedia is free for everyone and is paid for entirely by volunteers. It encourages participation. Only snag is that it is inaccessible to most children. What we need is a version of Wikipedia for schools encouraging learners to take part in building it as part of the learning process. It would cost a lot lot less than £500m to achieve that yet BECTA and the DfE at the time were quite oblivious to anyone questioning value for money at the time. They have both paid the price. That is why democracy is a good thing. If the coalition’s free schools are a disaster no doubt they’ll pay at the ballot box.

  15. Laura M

    Ian — your comment may be the first in a fair while that helped me positively understand why people are in favour of Free Schools 🙂

    I agree with much of what you say, especially on the ICT. My current daily exasperations is the insistence I use an outdated and clunky ‘Virtual Learning Environment’ when students already use better and *free* tools such as WordPress and Google Docs. I also take your point about the ballot box. On the one hand I feel that with education it’s one of the things you should try not to mess up in the first place, but on the other hand I agree that innovation is important and requires a tolerance of failure.

    However, I do think my two points at the start of your comment are not as in conflict as you think. On a day-to-day basis teachers can overcome pointless redtape. For example, I may not like all the audits and trip forms but they are mere hurdles I can deal with. However, seeing resentment build in my students as they watch pupils across the road in a multi-million pound sponsored school snaffling ‘the best’ teachers by offering greater pay while their own school has no fields, a leaking roof and major recruitment difficulties is moving beyond cope-able hurdles and means dealing with an entrenched disillusionment with government and society, which can be pretty tiring for a Social Scientist like myself! Of course, progress in schools will always be achieved at different speeds but I do think the consequences of this progress should be considered and provision made to ensure progress for one does not make another ‘worse off’ as tends to happen when one school suddenly gets a noticeable injection of cash and/or freedoms over and above those given to others.

    As for the inclusion of ‘scientific’ research, which somehow proclaims their findings as universal and replicable. Hmm… I am sceptical. Many techniques I used in my first teaching job didn’t translate at all to my second school (due to different ethnicities, religions, gender balance and class of students). Even now with one class rote learning may be a wonderful option, whereas the next are bored and climbing the walls in 10 mins. This happens to every teacher in every school – free, academy or otherwise. Exploring and showing teachers how to deal with these differences yet still enable learning is more important than anything else. But ‘science’ cannot do this. Action research might be a good start, increased peer observations, better CPD – all these would provide true gains for teaching & learning. But I have yet to hear a single Free School talk about such things.

    Then, I think to myself, maybe there will be a Free School that can quell my fears. In fact, I quite like the model of the Studio Schools Trust. Or maybe there will a CPD-centred school like some of the US Charters. However my mind still goes back to the students sitting in the non-free school across the road watching some get these well-supported talented teachers while they are left with those not so well-supported and perhaps no so interested in improving. That image means I just can’t believe this Free Schools policy is the current best solution, but you may have convinced me it is a necessary evil in getting us toward one.

    • What is the difference between a new school across the road built under say BSF and one built as a “free school”? I was a parent governor at a time when schools had to do an annual ballot about GM status. There was a unanimous “not fair” argument so I said Ok, let’s make things fair, let’s bus the poorest kids from the other side of town across here and have them in what is almost exclusively a middle class school. Suddenly fairness seemed to become a minor issue, especially among the teacher governors ;-). The snag with the English education system is that it has never had fair funding or distribution of children. A school in one LA can get £300 per pupil more than one in another. That is likely to have a bigger effect than Specialist Schools money at £129 per learner or even becoming a “free school”. I’m a bit ambivalent about “free schools” as such, but a lot of the objections to them don’t hold much rational water. If the argument is that they will probably make the gap between the best and worst schools bigger, I’d probably agree. We do have mechanisms to deal with weak and under-performing schools so a more interesting question would be if so, can we get more out of the best while focusing the support for the weakest more effectively? I would also extend that to learning. If we can make some children more self-sufficient through self and peer assessment, learning how to learn etc we should be able to free some teacher time to be better focused on the weakest. That is then a win-win. Of course there are then implications for teaching and learning styles etc. There is one way to remove the school across the road problem. If all schools become free schools then there is no distinction.

      Schools really ought to decide, given the current policy, what is best for the children in my school? They really should not make decisions on their own political preferences. Given the situation (even if I don’t really like it) what is the best I can do for my children within the law and the constraints of available resources? Of course if a group of teachers wanted to set up their own free school with a particular curricular approach why not? At least we would then be giving more credence to teachers professional capabilities. If we leave it to industrialists why then moan if they make a predictable mess of it?

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