Are Free Schools selective?
One interesting aspect of the Grammar schools debate, which has marked the start of May’s premiership, is how Free Schools might be used to introduce more selection into the State system. Nick Timothy, who now Heads May’s NO 10 Policy unit , used to head the New Schools Network, which promotes Free Schools. He has made it clear that he thinks expanding selection in the State sector is a good thing. So. that could mean, more Grammar schools, and also more selection in new Free schools(500 more expected in this Parliament) Either full, or partial selection . Already perhaps(see below) some Free schools are not being quite as ‘ inclusive’ as they could be.
Timothy might have been taken aback by the hostility the leaked proposals for perhaps 24 new grammar school, received from across the political spectrum, amid calls to point to robust evidence that Grammar schools improve the lot of the most disadvantaged pupils, and can drive social mobility across the board.
Government insiders are now tentatively suggesting that there would be no large scale expansion of Grammars. Just the 24, which looks like policy made on the hoof. If you believe in Grammars, and their transformative effects, you surely cant believe that just 24 schools are enough to drive transformation across the system. It also suggests too, does it not, a lack of confidence in Academies, and their capacity to transform the system. So what are they trying to achieve here?
To change any system you need to look at what drives improvement in student outcomes. Evidence is pretty clear. Yes ,structural reforms can be important, providing schools are given meaningful autonomy and are rooted in a robust accountability framework (not the same as red tape, by the way). But this is only one side of the coin. Evidence also tells us that high quality, distributed leadership is important, along with high quality teachers and teaching. We are short of good leaders and good teachers in the areas we need them the most. Ministers seem preoccupied with structural reforms, which are the low hanging fruit of educational reform, and seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the other drivers.
Returning to admissions, it seems that Free schools have a mixed record on admissions. Research by Professor Rebecca Morris in 2014 looked at admissions criteria used by the first two waves of secondary Free Schools in England. She found a real diversity of criteria being used by this new type of school and in how they are prioritising access. Free Schools are able to choose their own feeder schools, set their own catchment areas, prioritise particular postcode districts, guarantee places for children of the school’s founders or opt to use banding systems. Although the admissions policies of the majority of secondary Free Schools appear to be adhering to the 2012 Admissions Code legislation, (the Admissions code is being reviewed). Morris notes the influence that such criteria may have in creating intakes which ‘ are less balanced in terms of socioeconomic status, ethnicity or religious affiliation.’
Morris says ‘ It.. demonstrates the potential for these new schools to increase levels of stratification between schools in the local area. Some schools are clearly attempting to use their admissions policy to admit socially balanced intakes, offering priority to those eligible for the Pupil Premium or by participating in Local Authority-wide banding systems. The majority of schools, however, are not operating in this way.’
Its probably worth remembering that one of the original objectives of Free Schools was linked to the provision of high quality education for those from deprived backgrounds
Admissions Criteria of Secondary Free Schools-Rebecca Morris 2014
Other recent research has also concluded that Free Schools “are opening in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but are taking fewer poor children than the other local schools” (Green et al., 2014).