FactCheck: are free schools better?

Labour has accused Lord Nash of giving false information on the success or otherwise of free schools (see link at bottom) – Channel 4 News has now investigated the claims and counter-claims and given its verdict…

…Lord Nash boasted to the House of Lords of “the excellent work that is being done in our free schools, the first batch of which were good and outstanding in 75 per cent of cases, as opposed to 63 per cent of all other schools”.

We’re talking about the schools watchdog Ofsted here, who inspect schools and mark them from “outstanding” to “inadequate”.

Baroness Jones doesn’t dispute that 18 out of the 24 free schools that have been inspected so far were graded good or outstanding – 75 per cent, if you must.

But she says the corresponding figure for non-free schools is not 63 per cent but 78.5 per cent, meaning free schools are actually doing slightly worse than their maintained (council-controlled) peers.

The problem is that the government introduced a new framework for Ofsted inspectors from last year, meaning that schools visited by the watchdog after September 2012 judged schools by a tougher set of guidelines.

All the 24 free schools were seen after 1 September 2012, under the new, tougher regime.

But that percentage Labour want to use refers to all Ofsted inspections done both after the rules changed and before, when it was easier for a school to get a higher grade.

The Department for Education says it’s fairer to compare free schools with all other schools also marked under the new system, adding: “Figures referring to all schools inspected – under both the old regime and the new tougher framework – do not provide a true comparison.”

If we accept the government’s rationale we find that free schools are doing better than other schools marked after 1 September 2012 across all the Ofsted performance bands.

Some 16 per cent of free schools have been judged “oustanding” compared to 10 per cent of other maintained schools. Slightly more free schools are rated “good” (58 per cent instead of 54 per cent), while fewer “require improvement” (20 per cent instead of 30 per cent).

Only four per cent of free schools are “inadequate” compared to 6 per cent of other maintained schools.

On the face of it, this is a statistical victory for the government, but it has to be said that the people in charge of educating our children are doing something that would make an A Level statistics student blush.

They are using a sample size so small – only 24 schools – that expressing the numbers as percentages is a very dubious practice…

The verdict

We don’t like the government’s use of percentages here but, on balance, we think Labour are being a bit hysterical to call it “false information”.

In some ways it would have been better for the the opposition to have rejected the whole use of percentages altogether, rather than using numbers from before and after the Ofsted regime change last year to try to make it look like free schools are underperforming.

We think that IS an unfair approach so we won’t be joining in the calls to drag Lord Nash back to the red benches to make a public apology.

Let’s remember that free schools have only be going for a couple of years and only 24 have been inspected by Ofsted so far. It would be nice to deliver a resounding verdict on their academic performance so far, but it’s too early to tell.

More at:  FactCheck: are free schools better?

What do you make of Channel 4’s analysis? Was it a bit silly for Labour to claim Lord Nash was misleading parliament with an arguably even more misleading use of data itself when it might have made the more sensible arguments Channel 4 suggests? Please give us your view in the comments or on twitter… 

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Categories: Data and Free Schools.


  1. janey23HT

    SchoolsImprove these figures are pre Al-medina which makes 68% of Free Schools good or better. Nash needs to check his figures

  2. JoNoGo

    SchoolsImprove Figs are misleading. Schools get Ofsted for number of reasons other than routine. Often Free schools have no track record

  3. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove Free schools are no better or worse than other types. Figures are totally misleading as we’ve come to expect from DfE

  4. TW

    Since January 2012 schools previously judged as Outstanding are not routinely inspected.
    At best, Nash is comparing free schools with schools previously judges as below average.
    FactCheck is talking twaddle.

  5. Janet2

    It was silly of the Government to use such a small sample to size to crow about the “success” of free schools as a group.  So it was quite in order for Labour to point out this silliness.
    And, as TW says below, the Government is comparing a group of schools which were an unknown quantity with a group of schools which contained a disproportionate number of previously Inadequate or Satisfactory schools.  (Satisfactory has now been replaced with Requires Improvement).

  6. Organic_Jane

    SchoolsImprove As Disraeli said ‘lies, damned lies & statistics’. Would be interested in benchmarking re value for money between Free & LA

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