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.