Independent Public Schools in England are More Socially Selective

UK independent public schools called “free schools” are cherry picking higher income and higher achieving students according to new research published by the Institute of Education at London University.

The research shows that while free schools have opened in disadvantaged neighbourhoods they take fewer poor children (those receiving free meals) than the other local schools. Around 13.5 per cent of students attending primary free schools were eligible for free school meals while 18.3 per cent of students within the neighbourhoods of free schools were eligible. Across the rest of England 15.9 per cent of primary-age children were entitled to free school meals.

The findings also show that 17.5 per cent of students attending secondary free schools were entitled to free lunches, despite 22.1 per cent of young people being eligible in the areas surrounding the schools.

Free school primary students who enter free schools are academically ahead of their peers. They have significantly higher levels of attainment than the average not only for their neighbourhoods, but for the country as a whole. The free school pupils had an average score of 0.33 on assessments testing communication skills and school readiness while elsewhere in their neighbourhoods and the rest of England the figure is around zero.

“It appears that, so far, the places in Reception at free primary schools are being filled by children who are somewhat less disadvantaged and more advanced in their development than the average. This outcome may be disappointing for the government, which had hopes that its free schools policy would be a vehicle for delivering social justice,” said Professor Andy Green, leader of the study.

The study also found that free schools have emerged most strongly in neighbourhoods with high proportions of non-white children, compared with the national average, and that within those neighbourhoods they have admitted even higher proportions of non-whites. For example, 64 per cent of free school primary students are from a non-white background compared to 49 per cent in the neighbourhood of free schools and 29 per cent across England.

Free schools in England are independent schools funded by government. They are run by charitable trusts and not controlled by local education authorities. The programme was introduced by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2011.

The Institute of Education report is the first academic study analysing the social composition of all the primary and secondary free schools over the first three years of the Government’s programme. It examined the intakes of 88 primary and 63 secondary free schools which had opened by September last year.

Free schools in England are based on a similar model in Sweden that has operated since 1992. There is strong evidence that free schools in Sweden have also increased social segregation with regard to the socio-economic composition.

Professor Henry Levin at the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York said that a comprehensive, national study sponsored by the Swedish government found that socio-economic stratification had increased as well as ethnic and immigrant segregation.

A study of Sweden’s free schools by Dr Susanne Wiborg of the Institute of Education at London University found that free schools exacerbated social and ethnic segregation. She said that “other countries could risk an even greater increase in inequality from implementing similar kinds of free schools”.

Independent public schools are a central feature of the Abbott Government’s education policy. Already there is a high degree of social segregation in Australia’s schools produced by the private school system. The evidence is that this will increase within the public sector with more independent public schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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