In the run-up to the General Election this week, the non-partisan fact-checking charity Full Fact and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) have focused their efforts on education policy.
Among its findings, the analysis says that despite a fierce political debate over the effectiveness of the flagship free schools programme, there is not yet enough information to judge whether they are working.
There are more than 250 free schools open and the Conservative manifesto pledges more to come, stating that they are “delivering better education for the children who need it most”. Labour, however, maintains that the programme is “wasteful and poorly performing”.
However, the NFER-Full Fact analysis says it is simply too early to tell either way. Only 76 of the schools have been inspected, with 24 per cent rated outstanding, 49 per cent good, 24 per cent requires improvement and four per cent inadequate (two further schools have been closed).
This sample of inspected free schools is just too small to be able to make a robust comparison with local authority schools.
A key argument has been whether the schools are being opened in areas that need new places. On this, the analysis quotes a 2013 National Audit Office report showing that about 70 per cent of the estimated 114,000 places opened or due to be open are in areas “forecasting either high, severe, or moderate need for places”. However, as many schools are still not operating at full capacity, not all of the 114,000 places are actually available.
On academies, the analysis warns that it is still “difficult” to easily compare the performance of convertor and sponsored academies against maintained schools.
It is difficult to use Ofsted grades, as convertor academies were already judged to be good and outstanding schools before converting and sponsored academies were more likely to be graded requires improvement or inadequate before being taken over.
A comparison of academies’ GCSE outcomes against similar schools still in the maintained sector gives mixed results. The analysis states: “Using some measures of attainment at GCSE, two years after they opened sponsored academies were performing better than similar non-academy schools. However, over the same time period there was no difference between converter academies and similar non-academy schools.”
Elsewhere, in 16 to 19 education, the coalition has introduced what the analysis terms “considerable reforms”, at the heart of which are new 16 to 19 study programmes – offering each learner a “challenging individualised learning programme”, including academic and vocational qualifications, work experience, and continued study of GCSE English and maths if they do not hold an A* to C grade.
However, the analysis, quoting Ofsted research, says there is “little evidence of the transformational ‘step-change’ intended” by the reforms, with many providers not yet offering programmes that meet the key requirements.
Meanwhile, one of the first acts of the coalition government was to cut the annual funding for the national network of Connexions careers centres and to give schools the duty to deliver careers advice for students.
The analysis concludes that this has led to a decline in the “quality and quantity of careers provision” – quoting research from both Ofsted and the Sutton Trust.
On school places, the analysis warns that by 2023, the school population is expected to reach 12.7 million. However, even with planned increases, Department for Education estimates show that local authorities still need to find an additional 57,000 primary places by 2015/16.
Full Fact works throughout General Elections to check political claims. For an overview of the education fact checks, visit https://fullfact.org/education/