Free schools not meeting statutory equality duties, research claims

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A study of 78 free schools has found that a significant majority have not published any equality information or objectives despite a clear statutory requirement to do so. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

The government’s flagship free schools are failing to comply with statutory requirements on equality, according to a report.

The study, from the organisation Race on the Agenda (ROTA), found that while equalities legislation requires all schools to meet the requirements of the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED), few free schools are actually doing so.

The report, written by education consultant Bill Bolloten, examined the websites of 78 free schools that opened in 2011 and 2012 and revealed that 87 per cent are not complying with statutory requirements.

It found that only two of the schools are fully meeting the requirement to publish equality information and specific and measurable equality objectives, while 68 of the 78 schools had not published any equality information or objectives at all.

Six of the schools (7.7 per cent) had published at least one equality objective, which was “a poorer level of compliance than maintained schools or academies”.

The PSED is designed to eliminate all forms of discrimination, harassment and victimisation that are prohibited by the Equality Act 2010, advance equality of opportunity, and foster good relations.

It was drawn up to support schools to tackle unlawful discrimination, meet diverse needs, and identify and address the reasons for different educational outcomes for different groups.

The Equality Act 2010 requires all schools, including free schools, to fulfil the PSED and by April 2012, all schools should have published information to demonstrate their compliance with the duty, including publishing one or more specific and measurable equality objectives. 

Schools must also publish, at least annually, equality information to demonstrate how they are complying with the equality duty.

However, most free schools appear to be unaware of the Equality Act 2010 and the PSED, according to the report, with less than a quarter (23.1 per cent) making reference to the Equality Act in key policies and documents, and only 11.5 per cent citing the PSED.

Furthermore, two-fifths of free schools are failing to identify prejudice-related bullying and/or derogatory language in their policies on anti-bullying or behaviour.

The research was published just weeks after the Ofsted inspection of the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby, which found that statutory requirements, including those on equality, were not being met. Inspectors said that the school was “dysfunctional”, “in chaos” and “inadequate”.

Mr Bolloten said that the failure of most free schools to publish equality information makes it difficult for parents and local communities to know how they are promoting equality and tackling discrimination, and to hold them to account.

Andy Gregg, ROTA’s chief executive, said: “We are very concerned at what these findings show. Not only are the governing bodies of free schools failing in a core function to ensure that statutory duties are met, the Department for Education is also failing to make sure that free schools take promoting equality seriously.

“We have noted that Ofsted has recently judged the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby as inadequate and has required it to meet statutory equality requirements on racism, disability and SEN. Our research shows that these failings appear to be much more widespread than in those free schools that have attracted recent media attention.”

In an earlier report, published in 2012, ROTA examined the government’s free schools programme and the extent to which equality issues were considered.

It found that many Black and minority ethnic communities lacked engagement with the government’s free schools programme, and insufficient attention had been paid to encouraging their engagement and participation. It also claimed that when developing free schools, the consideration of legal requirements on equality and diversity, as set out in the Equality Act 2010, was “inadequate”. 

The latest report calls on free school governors to take steps to ensure that they know and understand what the Equality Act 2010 requires, and recommends that Ofsted makes compliance with the PSED a focus of school inspections. It also says the DfE should take steps to improve its advice to schools in this area.

Elsewhere, it says that the Equality and Human Rights Commission should determine and publish how it could use its enforcement powers to require free schools to comply with the PSED.

Professor Gus John, from London University’s Institute of Education, who has worked with ROTA, said: “It would seem that in addition to freedom from the national curriculum and from the need to employ qualified teachers, with free schools comes the freedom to ignore the Equality Act 2010 and the safeguards Parliament intends that it should provide, especially to the most vulnerable in the schooling system.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “This is nonsense. All schools, including free schools, must offer a broad and balanced curriculum and are required to meet their obligations under equalities legislation.”

ROTA is a social policy organisation focused on issues affecting Black, Asian and minority ethnic  communities. To download the report – entitled Do Free Schools Help to Build a More Equal Society? – visit www.rota.org.uk


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