Does DfE secrecy encourage extravagant Free School claims?

I read a letter by a previous correspondent of ours in the Brentwood Gazette with interest this week. Justine Burrows was responding to a recent article on the first term of Becket Keys Free School. I was not surprised to read about her concern regarding claims made within the piece that she felt were unprovable as she had contacted us in the summer on the same subject.

Mrs Burrows highlighted the phrase “some of our current students have already made the progress in one term you would expect them to make in a year” as an example before warning readers “not to necessarily take unproven statements as fact”.  In August last year, she had passed on correspondence that she had had with the Department for Education (DfE) on how the school’s proposers had reported on their pre-opening inspection (“DfE acknowledge need for transparency but won’t share information on Becket Keys readiness” so I knew she felt strongly on the subject.

In an extraordinary coincidence, the very next day I read a post by Suffolk blogger Martin Campbell regarding the self same subject.

The post reported on an upheld complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about claims made by the sponsors of the Beccles Free School (BFS), the Seckford Foundation. The first part of the complaint was about the stated experience of the school’s head teacher but it was the second element that made me sit up and take notice. To quote Mr Campbell:

“BFS also claimed to have passed an Ofsted pre-opening inspection “with flying colours”, despite the fact that this is a routine health, safety, welfare and suitability check with only a simple yes/no outcome.”

The phrase “flying colours” rang a distinct bell. Hadn’t this been used closer to home?

I checked back to the e-mails sent to the Becket Keys mailing list during the summer and lo and behold my memory had not failed me. Contained within “Becket Keys News” on 26th June 2012 from the “admin” mailbox and signed by the head teacher designate was the following:

*Pre-opening OfSTED inspection*
We had a brilliant experience of OfSTED in our pre-opening inspection on Monday 25th June. They came to inspect the preparations for Becket Keys and we passed with flying colours in every single criterion. The
school’s policies, curriculum plans, site organisation, safety and recruitment processes were all reviewed.

Reviewing Mrs Burrows question to the DfE in her FOI request reminded me that the description provided on the proposed school’s Facebook page at the time was even more effusive. She framed her question as follows:

I understand a Readiness for Opening meeting took place recently for the proposed new Brentwood free school, Becket Keys. The school has posted a quote on its Facebook page as follows:- “Mr Scott-Evans and RET colleagues went to the DfE today for our Readiness for Opening meeting. Guess what? We’re ready!!! An excellent meeting covering all issues: staff (excellent), policies (excellent), development planning (excellent), budget plans (excellent), OfSTED (excellent), worship and service to the community (excellent), training (excellent), governance (excellent). You name it – we covered it.”…Please can you supply minutes or a report of the meeting. I’m a parent trying to make an informed decision regarding secondary schools and I would appreciate the opportunity to read a formal report.

The DfE refused to release any information on the grounds that it “could lead to inaccurate assessments being made about the readiness of Free Schools to open on time”.

To help Mrs Burrows I can reveal that the pre-inspection reports of the first round of Free Schools are now available via the following DfE link. They include the first such school opened by the “Russell Education Trust” (RET), Bristol Free School. Oddly eight areas seem to be listed in the Facebook statement and yet there appears to be only five in these reports.

It is to be welcomed that these reports are now available on-line but the time it has taken to do so has allowed those schools time to attract two cohorts of students by which time (the DfE appears to hope) the die will be cast. It appears the same time will have to elapse before information on subsequent Free Schools is available.


So how did ASA deal with the report of the pre-opening inspection in Suffolk? The full ruling is available here:

ASA’s assessment regarding the Beccles pre-opening inspection provides clear clarification and, in passing, it is interesting to note that “excellent” does not seem to be listed as a grade:

“Ofsted did carry out pre-registration inspections of free schools to check that they were likely to meet specific standards in welfare, health and safety, suitability of the proprietor and staff, the school premises, the provision of information for parents/carers, and the manner in which complaints were handled. The inspection did not include checks on the proposed curriculum or expected educational standards of the school.

We considered the term “passed with flying colours” implied that the report judged schools on a sliding scale, such as a grade system, and that BFS had received a particularly high grade or score overall. We noted, however, that the pre-registration inspection judged only whether schools were “likely to meet” or “not likely to meet” each criteria relevant to the school. We considered the term “passed with flying colours” therefore exaggerated the nature of the pre-registration inspection and its judging criteria. We concluded the claim was misleading.”

It is important to note that, in contrast to Becket Keys, Seckford used this information in an official leaflet but it begs the question why does this exaggeration take place? Why can’t they simply report that the inspection was passed? Perhaps the answer lies in the approach of the DfE itself?

As we reported recently, the DfE’s record on responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests is so poor that they have put in “special measures” by the Information Commissioner. This has been covered in the national education newspaper SecEd this week in an article which we contributed to.

The central point I wanted to emphasise when asked was that the lack of transparency at the DfE encourages some Free School sponsors to make claims in the pursuit of pupils that cannot be substantiated. For, while there appears to be an initial period of preferential funding, the school’s income is directly dependent on student numbers. As most sponsors are private companies, their business also relies upon it.

If you know that the contents of your funding agreement can’t be checked then you can be elaborate in your publicly stated plans.

If you know that no impact assessments have been made available to the public then you know that you don’t have to address the possible effect of your school on others in the area.

If you are aware that the DfE will not allow scrutiny of your pre-inspection report then you can claim to have been judged as “excellent” when the options are only “pass or “fail”.

If Free Schools are really meant to encourage “competition” why is it that the DfE allows this state of affairs to exist?

Only with open access to information can fair and accurate judgements truly be made by parents when selecting a school for their child. At present all we have is PR.

Or perhaps it is in the interest of someone powerful that some schools are given preference, and can play by different rules, in the new “survival of the fittest” educational landscape?

Stephen Mayo


  1. Very interesting article! Thanks.
    As someone who has just submittted an application to the DfE for a new secondary in Oxford – I think that there are lots of aspects to the process that could do with ironing out. Greater transparency, across the piece, would help us open better schools, and to support existing schools too.

    But, it is NOT just free schools who exagerate and misuse stats! Lots of schools do this – partly because of the fear of Ofsted (if not Ofsted itself) – and that although there have been some poorly judged decisions from those involved in freeschools – they are subject to the same landscape as everyone else.

    Yes – judge free school with rigour – but maintain fairness and statistical consistency.

    • Thank you for your comment Eylan, we would agree completely that greater transparency (and engagement with the local community) is the be the best way to introduce new schools. It is encouraging that you intend to take this approach with your application.

      The concern we highlight here is that, because of the approach of the DfE, there is no objective evidence available that enables parents and other interested parties to check claims that have been made in some cases in the early days of a school’s existence – and indeed before the school even opens, describing the school as “outstanding” for example.

      There are no stats being quoted in the cases we raise so it is not a case of misuse, instead the out of sight processes that the DfE employs have encouraged some (by no means all!) Free School proposers to overplay the importance of meetings and processes to promote their school secure in the knowledge that they won’t be contradicted for well over a year. Why not just say “we passed the pre-inspection” instead of suggesting a different scale of measurement?

      I would respectfully suggest that they are not therefore subject to the same landscape as everyone else. The public is able to judge existing schools (to some extent) via Ofsted reports and exam results so their claims are made against that backdrop. Through no fault of their own, that is not the case with Free Schools but some of them have chosen to fill the gap with exaggeration and extravagent claims rather than engage the local population to make a compelling case for their school.

      I genuinely hope that you progress your proposal on the basis that you have outlined and avoid the pitfalls that we have experienced here in Brentwood, where the stakes are high due to surplus secondary school places, and there is evidence of elsewehere.

      Stephen Mayo

  2. A very interesting post – I wish I could say that I was surprised. Two points, probably only on interest to those in education who are also science/skepticism geeks like myself:

    1 this approach is exactly the same as that taken by alt-med practitioners, when competing with evidence based interventions. Exaggerate potential benefits and overstate health and safety inspections as ‘approved by health authority’ for example.

    2 in evolutionary theory, to help their offspring survive in a competitive environment parents provide material advantages. This can include extra food, teaching them how to hunt, support with childrearing or simply producing energy rich stores in a seed or egg. The technical term is ‘privilege’. Interesting that the dfe appears to be giving free schools exactly this kind of privilege…

  3. a lot of what you say in this is exactly to the word about the ofsted inspection the free school in runcorn cheshire bob on the same this school is due to be built on a grade 3 red flood plain and 500 residents have signed a petition against it as it is already causing mass floods to our homes


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