Michael Gove's flagship education project has been dealt an embarrassing blow after inspectors demanded that three of the new wave of "free schools" must improve their teaching, leadership and pupil performance. In the first official verdict on the Education Secretary's free schools programme, Ofsted inspectors have ruled that three of the first nine institutions to be examined are "not good" schools.
The "requires improvements" judgement handed down to Batley Grammar School in Yorkshire, Sandbach School in Cheshire and Kings Science Academy in Bradford is the third-lowest of the four possible grades that Ofsted can give – one above the "inadequate" rating. Each school now faces another full-scale inspection within the next two years.
Labour said the "worrying" judgement blew a hole in the Government's pledge that the semi-independent schools, set up by interest groups including parents, charities and businesses, would improve educational standards for thousands of young people. Union leaders complained that any council-run schools given such low grades "would be closed down or forced to accept academy status". The shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg, said: "Michael Gove promised that his free schools programme would raise standards, but the early signs will worry parents. He needs to focus on driving up school quality in those areas which just aren't good enough."
Mr Gove has consistently claimed that free schools will improve the performance and opportunities of children in England and Wales, telling MPs earlier this month that the schools were "making a significant difference in driving up standards in every part of the country".
David Cameron yesterday said many more free schools were in the pipeline, as he called on the education system "to be like the pushiest, most sharp-elbowed, ambitious parent there is". The Prime Minister claimed his Government was taking on "a left-wing establishment that had bargain-basement expectations of millions of children".
Twenty-four free schools, all state funded but semi-independent and run by "education providers", opened their doors in the first wave of the new institutions in 2011. More than 50 more followed in 2012, and more than 100 have been authorised to open from this year onwards.
Although teaching unions complained they are "undemocratic and a huge waste of public money", the Department for Education (DfE) insisted the new institutions would address specific needs in different parts of the country. Nine free schools have been visited since Ofsted began inspecting the first wave of the institutions in January. Six free schools inspected were labelled "good", with Woodpecker Hall Academy in London graded "outstanding" for the achievement, behaviour and safety of its pupils.
But Batley Grammar, Sandbach School and Kings Science Academy were all judged to require improvements in the key areas of teaching quality, leadership and management and pupil achievement. Inspectors said Kings Science Academy must improvements in all four main categories, after criticising its teaching, leadership and the length of the school day.
Batley Grammar, previously a fee-paying independent school, was praised for the headteacher's leadership and said improved teaching quality, but inspectors added: "Teaching has not been consistently good enough over time in the secondary phase and the sixth form, especially in English and mathematics. Too little teaching is outstanding. When the free school opened, leaders and governors lacked data about pupils' performance. As a result, target-setting and checks on progress were not fit for purpose." Improvements demanded included increasing the proportion of good and outstanding teaching.
Ofsted criticised Sandbach School because the achievement of pupils was "inconsistent", marking was "variable" and the school "has had an overgenerous view of its performance". Its report added: "Plans for improvement are not sharply focused on addressing areas for improvement. As a result, the school has not acted swiftly enough to tackle some areas of weakness, such as science."
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the reports "put paid to the idea that free schools or academies run by sponsors are axiomatically best placed to deliver education". She added: "It is dreadful that schools which the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary constantly trumpet as being better than local authority-maintained schools are failing through ill-thought-out and hastily implemented policies."
A DfE spokesman said six of the nine free schools inspected were rated as "good", which was "a brilliant achievement when these schools have been open just over a year".
He added: "Where Ofsted found that a minority 'require improvement', we are confident that the right steps are being taken. Nearly all the free schools which have opened so far have been heavily oversubscribed."