25 August 2017

Free schools are working – just look at their GCSE results

By Toby Young

I wasn’t surprised to see a group of free schools among the country’s top performers in yesterday’s GCSE results.

Reach Academy Feltham, a free school that opened in 2012 in one of London’s poorest boroughs, saw an astonishing 96 per cent of its pupils get 9 – 4 in English and maths (A* – C in old money). We don’t yet know what percentage of English schoolchildren hit that target, but in 2016 the equivalent figure was under 60 per cent. I wouldn’t be surprised if Reach Feltham tops the GCSE league table this year.

Then again, that honour might go to the Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School, a free school in Blackburn, one of the most deprived cities in England. Last year, TIBHS came third overall in the Progress 8 league table, with its sister school – the Tauheedul Islam Girls’ High School, also in Blackburn – coming first. Sixty-three per cent of the students at TIBHS obtained the EBacc this year. In 2016, only 23 per cent of English students achieved that benchmark.

Both of these schools are what I would call “Gromps” – they combine the academic rigour and strict discipline of old-fashioned grammars with the inclusive ethos of modern comprehensives.

What does that mean in practice? At Reach Feltham, it means every child is expected to go to university regardless of their socio-economic background or prior attainment. At TIBHS, it means every child does GCSE Arabic as well as eight other GCSEs, including a second foreign language. I’ve visited both of these schools and there is no low-level disruption in lessons, the corridors are silent and behaviour is immaculate. To see them is to catch a glimpse of what a truly world-class English education system could look like.

Luckily, they are not alone. They are at the forefront of a burgeoning movement which rejects the failed nostrums of progressive education and refers to itself as “neo-traditionalist”. Nearly all of this year’s crop of high-performing free schools fall into this category – and there are at least a dozen, including the one I helped set up in 2011.

But it isn’t just free schools that have embraced the Gromp philosophy, although they are leading the way. I run a charity called the New Schools Network and we recently conducted some research into England’s highest-performing and lowest-performing schools, as judged by last year’s GCSE results. Not surprisingly, we found that, in general, successful state secondary schools tend to have more traditional characteristics and unsuccessful schools more progressive ones. Specifically, we found that the most successful schools have high academic expectations of all their pupils, including the most disadvantaged; effective behaviour management policies that are rigorously enforced; and they favour teacher-led, whole-class instruction over student-led group work.

NSN plans to publish a larger piece of research in due course based on this year’s GCSE results, but these provisional findings tally with other research findings. For instance, in the Education Policy Institute’s report on the performance of England’s multi-academy trusts and local authorities in 2015, the Inspiration Trust came top of the secondary table and the Harris Federation came top of the primary table. Both of these academy chains are firmly in the neo-traditionalist camp.

International evidence also suggests this approach is the most effective. In the past 15 years or so, a consensus has begun to emerge in the United States about what the common characteristics are of the country’s most successful schools, particularly when it comes to the attainment of the most disadvantaged students. They are almost exclusively in large cities like New York, Boston and Chicago; the vast majority are “charters”, the American equivalent of free schools; and they characterise their approach to education as “No Excuses”.

The phrase “No Excuses” was first used by Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom in a book called No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (2001) and has since become part of the lingua franca of the American education debate. It doesn’t just refer to a particular approach to managing pupils’ behaviour, although all these schools are characterised by strong discipline. It also refers to the refusal of the schools to accept any excuses for poor pupil performance, particularly excuses that make reference to religion, ethnicity or socio-economic status. These schools typically have the following characteristics: strong discipline, smart school uniforms, high academic expectations, a commitment to getting every child into university, longer school days, younger-than-average teachers, traditional pedagogy and speedy interventions if children are getting left behind. Broadly speaking, these are the same characteristics shared by Gromps.

Like the advocates of the free schools policy, the pioneers of charter schools hoped that creating a space for innovation in America’s public education system would enable educators to discover new, more effective teaching methods that other schools could benefit from. And with the No Excuses model becoming more and more widespread, it looks as if that is happening. For instance, a group of educators in Houston have managed to turn around some low-performing public schools by encouraging them to adopt some No Excuses practises.

Are there similar lessons that England’s 3,000+ comprehensives can learn from neo-traditionalist schools, particularly the free schools that have done so well this year? I think there are. When it comes to closing the attainment gap in England’s schools, this looks like the approach most likely to work.

Toby Young is the co-founder of the West London Free School. He is the author, with Miranda Thomas, of 'What Every Parent Needs to Know: How to Help Your Child Get the Most Out of Primary School'