Monday, 19 May 2014

The truth about Waltham Forest’s schools

Every parent wants to know that their child will have access to a good school and that the people running those schools take their job seriously. This is the common-sense anxiety on which the current government has mercilessly and shamelessly played in order to stoke up demand for ‘Free Schools’.

This is not to say that nothing about our school system needs improvement – of course it does, but the drive to create demand for Free Schools depended on establishing that there was something fundamentally rotten about comprehensive schools. If current trends are anything to go by, the truth appears to be almost the reverse. As proportionately more Free Schools are falling foul of Ofsted, it appears that there is something fundamentally wrong with the new kids on the block.

Tackling the legacy of this fear-mongering is difficult because there are huge problems in our education system, many of which are nothing to do with our schools. For example, can any form of school offset the effects of 30 years in which social and economic inequality has got worse? But as the unfolding policy disaster that is the Free Schools project shows, fear-mongering only worsens the situation.

It's disappointing then, to find a recent local Liberal Democrat party election leaflet making some deeply unfair claims about the performance of our schools based on distorted statistics. The leaflet claimed that Waltham Forest’s schools have the lowest percentage of pupils passing 5 GCSE’s at A-C grade including English and Maths in London and that  in Key Stage 2 exams (11 tests of 11 year olds), Waltham Forest is the lowest performing borough in London. This is, they claim, a damning indictment of our schools under the current council. “It’s a competitive world out there” one Lib Dem Councillor is quoted as saying, while another claims to “see no reason why our children can’t be the best in London”.  Both quotes are in fact fairly meaningless but they seem calculated to play on anxieties that our schools are failing.

So what is the truth about Waltham Forest schools?

Firstly, we went back to the same statistics used by the Liberal Democrats to see what they told us. We looked at the most recent statistical reports on educational performance in Waltham Forest by the Council officers to the Children and Young People Overview and Scrutiny sub-committee (see the documents under item 45 in particular). What they show us, perhaps predictably, is that the truth is more complicated but it’s also much more encouraging. For example: 

  • Our schools are meeting their improvement targets for Key Stage 1 reading and writing,
  • While it’s true that Waltham Forest’s schools are currently running fairly consistently below the London average on most indices, the gap seems to be narrowing on most measures.
  • At Key Stage 1 Reading, Writing and Maths our schools are meeting their improvement targets and the gap between them and the London average is almost non-existent.
  • Waltham Forest’s schools are meeting their targets to reduce the gap between the levels of educational attainment of pupil premium pupils and their peers at Key Stages 2 and 4. 
  • At Key Stage 2, Waltham Forest is below the London average but only by 4% and is equal to the National Average.
  • At Key Stage 4, the percentage of pupils reaching 5 or more GCSEs with grades A to C is below the London average and the National Average but only by 2% and the gap is narrowing.
  • Indeed, what’s most striking from the statistics is that the rate of improvement of Waltham Forest Schools over the last three years in particular is comparable with the London average in general,  often outstrips the rate of improvement of the National Average and sometimes outstrips the rate of improvement of the London average. At Key Stage 1 the rate of improvement is quite dramatic and is still impressive at Key Stage 2.
In short, Waltham Forest’s schools are still behind the London average but they are on a good trajectory, improving steadily across most measures and rapidly on many others. Certainly not the disaster narrative being fed by the local Liberal Democrats’ leaflet.

It’s also worth bearing in mind, that this isn’t some abstract race. Waltham Forest is one of the most deprived boroughs in the capital and the country as a whole. By the Council’s chosen index, Waltham Forest is the 6th most deprived borough in London, while London’s Poverty Profile identifies Waltham Forest as one of the four most impoverished boroughs in the capital. Comparison of schools performance that are crudely indexed against Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth and Westminster are not going to tell us that much. When the borough’s deprivation is taken into account the rate of improvement in Waltham Forest’s schools is more impressive.

Statistics should be used with great care. If you really wanted to know what was happening in Waltham Forest’s schools and wanted to draw meaningful comparisons, you would have to compare schools in boroughs with comparable socio-economic profiles and similar resources. And you’d have to agree in advance what the measure of a good school actually is.

The statistics show that our schools have room to improve in simple raw academic performance indicators but that’s not the only measure of a good school. The statistics also show that even measured on their simple academic performance, our schools are improving impressively in spite of the borough’s socio-economic profile and resource issues.

Our schools are doing well and they deserve – and need - our support.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Just what is the real problem with Free Schools?

The revelation that Michael Gove has been raiding the budget for primary schools of £400 million to fund his free schools shows once again that the current government’s real objective is not about building new schools or fulfilling its duty to provide children with school places. It’s not even really about choice. It’s about using its time in government to cause the maximum possible damage to the comprehensive school system.

Gove has done everything possible to provide a sheltered environment for his new schools. He’s used legislation to ensure that no one can build any other kind of new school. He’s provided Free Schools with privileged funding and raided other budgets to support them. He’s allowed them to overrun their projected capital start-up costs. Perhaps more importantly, he’s been frantically busy inside the DfE reallocating resources to try to hide their desperate shortcomings. As the evidence grows of a disproportionate failure rate, it also emerged that Free schools,are getting extra support and resources to help them survive, resources that are unavailable for other struggling schools.

As well as revealing the nakedly ideological project underpinning the Free Schools policy, what this has also shown is that the Department knows there is something very wrong with Free Schools. Even the government has had to admit this with the Schools Minister John Nash recently quoted as saying ‘Experience has shown us that free schools in their first years of operation are different from other open academies and face problems that are not educational in origin.’

We think that parents and all those who are thinking about getting involved with these schools deserve to know what it is that’s so problematic about this school. That’s why we have published this briefing note on Free Schools. Our briefing focuses on what we think are fundamental structural flaws that stem from the way these schools have been set up in law and outside the local authority system. We argue that far from representing a few bad apples, the recent scandals that have engulfed several Free Schools tell us something very important about them, something that the Department for Education does not want you to know.

Our message is, if you’re thinking about signing your child up for a Free School, about getting involved in governing a Free School, or even  about setting one up, read this briefing - and think again.