factFiction4The claim

“Lord Nash has given false information to parliament and he should correct the error at the earliest opportunity.”
Baroness Jones, 26 October 2013

The background

Free schools. You either love the idea of state-funded schools run by parents, teachers, charities or businesses instead of local authorities, or you hate it.

We don’t have an opinion either way, but we have FactChecked the government’s flagship “big society” education project and have raised a number of concerns.

We found that a third of the new schools are opening in areas where there is a surplus of school places – despite acute shortages in other areas.

On the other hand, FactCheck also gave Labour a black mark for scaremongering on the supposed size of the shortfall of primary school places this year.

Now government and opposition have locked horns again on the merits of free schools, with shadow education minister Baroness Jones demanding that her Conservative opposite number Lord Nash return to parliament to correct what she called “false information”.

The analysis

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.

Let’s look at that last comparison: “Four per cent of free schools are inadequate”.

What that means is that one school has got the worst possible verdict from Ofsted. If just one more school slipped down into the “inadequate” band that would mean that 8 per cent of free schools were now inadequate.

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.

By Patrick Worrall