Are Free Schools outperforming state schools?

Published: 2nd Aug 2013

"The proportion [of Free Schools] that are good or outstanding outstrips other state schools."

Michael Gove, The Guardian, 1 August 2013

This week, Education Secretary Michael Gove claimed that the evidence had vindicated his Free Schools policy. Writing in the Guardian, Mr Gove points out that an initial sample shows 75% of all free schools are being ranked either 'good' or 'outstanding' by Ofsted. But how reliable is this data?

The first thing to note is that it is very early days for the programme, and the data itself reflects this. Ofsted only looked at a sample of 24 free schools, which is tiny compared to around 19,000 local authority schools which it also oversees.

So what does the data we have available on Free School performance actually tell us?

Of the 24 Free Schools that have so far been assessed, four were found to be 'outstanding', and a further 14 were ranked 'good'. Taken together therefore, three quarters of these schools fell into these categories.

Whether or not this compares favourably with other state schools depends upon what baseline we compare it to. 

Of the 6,000 or so schools assessed by Ofsted in 2012, 70% were found to be good or outstanding. Compared to this benchmark, Free Schools performed slightly better, although given the small number in the sample, the difference might not be significant.

If however we look at all state schools, then 79% were found to be good or outstanding by Ofsted in the most recent assessment, slightly higher than the proportion of Free Schools found likewise.

Some have put this disparity down to the fact that Mr Gove has placed the emphasis on "tougher" inspections since 2011, and that some schools who have not been reassessed since then may have artificially high rankings as a result.

Whether or not this is true, we should be cautious about reading too much into the relatively marginal difference between the Ofsted performance data. 24 schools is a very small number to draw any firm conclusions from, particularly when we also consider the variety of social and environmental factors that can have an effect on how a school performs.

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