This article titled “Free schools taking lower numbers of deprived pupils, data shows” was written by Jessica Shepherd, education correspondent, for guardian.co.uk on Monday 14th November 2011 20.42 UTC
The coalition’s flagship free schools are taking only half the proportion of deprived pupils compared with other state schools in England, data revealed under the Freedom of Information Act shows.
Rachel Gooch, a primary school governor from Suffolk, asked the 24 free schools that opened this September for the percentage of their pupils on free school meals.
Of the 23 schools that responded, Gooch found that on average just 9.4% of pupils at the free schools were eligible for free school meals. Statistics published by the Department for Education (DfE) show that on average 18% of pupils in state schools in England are entitled to subsidised lunches. To be eligible for the benefit, a child’s family income has to be below £16,000.
Gooch compared the intake of disadvantaged children at each of the free schools with the five nearest schools for pupils of a similar age group. She found that all but one of the free schools were taking fewer deprived pupils than average for their neighbouring schools.
The findings are at odds with the coalition’s claim that free schools are empowering working-class families. Michael Gove, the education secretary, has said the creation of free schools is intended to tackle flaws in the education system, including a concentration of the weakest schools in “our poorest towns and cities”.
The policy is modelled on charter schools in New York, which are said to have closed the gap between innercity students and their peers in the suburbs.
Meanwhile, it has been announced that two of Britain’s oldest football clubs, Everton and Derby County, will be opening free schools for disadvantaged children who have been excluded from mainstream schools. The clubs hope the schools will be able to use sport as a way of encouraging pupils to learn.
Everton expects its school to be able to cater for 50 teenagers and to eventually take boarders.
The DfE has said that 12 of the 24 free schools that opened this autumn are in the most deprived parts of the country. But analysis by the Guardian in August showed that the catchment areas of free schools were skewed towards the middle class and that white, working-class pupils were under-represented.
Gooch found that free schools are located in poor parts of the country, but are failing to take their fair proportion of pupils from low-income homes, when compared with neighbouring schools.
The data she received showed that on average, a quarter of children attending the five schools nearest to each of the free schools were eligible for subsidised lunches, compared with just one in 11 of the pupils at the free schools.
At the West London Free School, founded by the journalist and author Toby Young, just over 23% of pupils are eligible for free lunches, compared with just over 32% in the five neighbouring schools. At Batley grammar school, a free school in Kirklees, just 4.3% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 19% in the five neighbouring schools.
Young responded on Gooch’s blog that the free school meal data from his school was “not the same as the actual number … because some parents don’t claim the entitlement, either through ignorance or embarrassment”.
Many of the free schools have just one year group and will build up to become full schools over time, so the sample size analysed is small. Two of the free schools used to charge fees and so their intake is not yet representative of a state school.
A spokesman from the DfE said the coalition had introduced free schools because the current education system was “not working” for too many parents. “There is a shortage in good school places and free schools provide greater choice for parents and raise standards across the board.”
Free schools are one of the most prominent of the Conservative party’s “big society” projects. The schools can be founded by parents, charities and teachers, although in many cases faith organisations, education companies or existing academy sponsors have taken the lead. The schools are run as academies and can opt to only teach the core elements of the national curriculum.
The government expects 87 free schools to open from next year onwards.
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