Toby Young and the West London Free School : how to avoid educating your community.

I don’t know Toby Young, although I’ve heard him speak on educational matters, and as a result I’m not what you’d call a fan of his. He’s often invited by the media to represent pro-Govian views on education. And who can blame him : few can be ignorant of the fact that Gove gifted his good friend Young a school to play with. The West London Free School is the flagship school of Gove’s flagship programme. The proud boast of its founder and fans is that it will bring rigour, challenge and success to an inner city area, succeeding where all those terrible state schools previously failed.

So inevitably, I decided to have a look at its statistics.

I’ve approached this in a slightly different way than previously, in an attempt to head off any attempt to obfuscate the issues by questioning the stats. What I’ve done is drill down to individual student number levels. I hope the following explanation is clear.

West London Free School, according to its website, admits 120 students each year. So what I’ve done is to try and look at what the make-up of the nearest students produced by local primaries actually is. That way we can see just how representative the West London Free School’s intake is. So I’ve looked at the nearest six local state primary schools, all within half a mile, who between them produce 180 secondary-ready students each year (or 181 to be precise in 2013). Why 180 instead of 120 ? Well, because some of these schools are voluntary aided, so some parents may choose a religious secondary, and also in West London there’s always turnover with families leaving the area and new families entering. Assuming two thirds both remain in the area and don’t have a religious preference seems more than fair to WLFS. I’ve also tried to be as kind as possible: the sixth and furthest school has a comparatively advantaged intake, so I’ve included it to give West London Free School a fighting chance to demonstrate it is representative of its community.

A further assumption is that, given West London Free School’s popularity, the majority of the parents of these 180 children would like to apply for a place at this very close new secondary school with the excellent publicity. So we’d expect that the intake of West London Free School would be broadly representative of the local cohort.

Obviously, I don’t have details on each of these 181 individual children. So what I’ve done is to assume that each cohort within that primary school will be representative of the overall school in terms of EAL, FSM and SEN. That, of course, needn’t be the case, but overall a school would reasonably expect the proportion of students with those characteristics not to change dramatically year on year. So using the school’s overall percentage of SEN/EAL/FSM students, I’ve calculated how many students one would expect that school to be producing with those characteristics, from its leaving class. I’ve rounded down or up to the nearest whole child!

The table is below :

School Number of Students leaving Y6 Predicted SEN number (%) Predicted EAL number (%) Predicted FSM number (%)
1 22 2 (10.2%) 13 (60.8%) 12 (55.5%)
2 23 3 (12.5%) 8 (36.9%) 9 (40.7%)
3 56 3 (4.7%) 21 (38.3%) 15 (26.8%)
4 30 3 (8.8%) 4 (14.6%) 5 (15.2%)
5 23 2 (6.9%) 12 (53.8%) 13 (55.6%)
6 27 1 (5.4%) 10 (37.6%) 4 (15.9%)
Totals 181 14 (7.7%) 68 (37.6%) 58 (32%)

The final column is the most representative set of figures I can work out for the actual students who are leaving the nearest primaries to WLFS. WLFS is, I understand, oversubscribed, and so one would expect that it is the parents of these children who are competing to get a place there. So we’d expect to see WLFS demographics reflecting those percentages for SEN, EAL and FSM.

You can probably guess what’s coming next.

SEN EAL FSM
% of local primary leavers if allocated proportionally to WLFS (number) 7.7% (9) 37.6% (45) 32% (38)
% of West London Free School intake (number) 3.3% (4) 11.6% (14) 24.9% (30)

These really are quite remarkable figures. Wherever Toby Young appears to be recruiting his students from, it doesn’t appear to be the local community. His school’s % of SEN students is less than half that which leaves local state primaries. His school’s proportion of children receiving FSM is significantly less than expected. But the figure which stands out is that for EAL. The school is located in a very multicultural area of London, with many new immigrant families, so that well over a third of all local primary children speak English as a second language. Yet in their local secondary school, the West London Free School, only just over a tenth have English as a second language.

There are three possible explanations for this :

(1) Local parents who are poorer, or who don’t speak English as a first language, or whose children have SEN, are shunning West London Free School; or

(2) Statistical aberration – the SEN, EAL and FSM students in the local primaries are heavily weighted towards their lower years, and the last couple of years have been remarkably advantaged, so WLFS is actually reflecting the demographic in two particular years, and will see its figures rise as those disproportionately disadvantaged younger years work their way through primary schools (which seems very unlikely); or

(3) West London Free School, and Toby Young, have found a way of managing their admissions process to exclude most eligible local children with SEN and/or EAL, and a good proportion of those from disadvantaged economic backgrounds.

I think I know which one my money is on.

Either way, when West London Free School starts to produce GCSE results, there is no way that it can be held up as an example of a success story of inner city education. It could only be such an example if we somehow made most of the disadvantaged children in the inner city disappear.

Perhaps one reason why headteachers don’t stay long at West London Free School is that they have some wild, outlandish notions that a local state school should represent and educate its local community ?

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12 thoughts on “Toby Young and the West London Free School : how to avoid educating your community.

  1. It seems that the assumption here is that Young has set up this free school, partly on ideological grounds and partly to provide good quality free education. The author appears to suspect that places are being preferentially directed towards wealthier Tory-voting local families. Aside from the shaky statistics, which appear not to have been significance tested, it seems to me that a fourth possible explanation also exists as follows:
    Tories think free schools are a good idea so are more likely to apply for their children to go there. Labour disapproves of free schools and presumably this should result in Labour voters effectively boycotting them. Locally, the Labour party’s support is highest among the EAL and FSM groups (make of that what you will!), and therefore those people should be the least likely to choose to apply to a free school.

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    • Nice try Patrick, but there’s no shakiness to these statistics. Real numbers, straight off the government’s own dataset. How you interpret them is up to you, but groundlessly implying they’re shaky, and then trying to excuse what they undoubtedly show is a teeny bit cheeky and inconsistent!

      I like your attempted explanation, that all the poorest local families, or those with disadvantaged children, are so ideologically repelled by the free school concept that they willingly leave all the places in their nearest secondary school for rich Tories with no such scruples. Certainly my favourite attempt yet to explain these statistical anomalies.

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  2. On reflection, I suppose what I said was a fourth point is the first explanation in the article.

    What I don’t get about the statistics is that although the six nearest primary schools are selected, they represent 180 students. I understand around 1,150 students applied to the WLFS, which means that your analysis is based on around 15% of the applicants.

    There is no explanation of why the data from such a small sample size should be extrapolated to represent all the eligible children within the local community. By all means, work with a statistician to get some useful information out of your raw data, but there is no mathematical value in what the author has done here and consequently all the conclusions are based on analysis of a prejudiced guess.

    The admission criteria are published and publicly available. This document is explicit that WLFS will give priority to SEN children. It also details the selection methods for other pupils and it is possible that some bias could be exercised within this framework.

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    • Hi again Patrick

      I’ve read WLFS’s admissions policy. Much of it is standard –

      1. They legally have to prioritise looked-after children
      2. They legally have to accept those statements of SEN which name the school (although that isn’t the same as giving priority to SEN children, as most children with SEN do not have statements). That’s not some philanthropic choice, it’s a standard legal duty.
      3. Then they have the founders clause, which to be honest is pretty outrageous in any state school, but I think we all know what this was about.
      4. Then they have the musical point, which is a well-known middle-class fiddle, because it’s an awful lot easier to display your musical aptitude if you’ve been having private tuition in the violin since you were 5.
      5. The sibling rule is entirely standard
      6. The siblings at the associated primary school is rather odd, but if it’s going to be an all-through school then understandable
      7. After that is a set-up involving distance to the door.

      So you ask why those 180 students I identified as the closest to WLFS are important. Well they’re important because according to the admissions criteria, they are the children who should be admitted to WLFS before any others, once you’ve got the founders’ kids, statemented kids, looked after kids and 12 musical prodigies out of the way. Unless the founders have been truly remarkably prolific breeders, then you should still be looking at the great majority of the places being allocated on the basis of proximity to the school. If you allocate on that basis, and the school is oversubscribed, then the intake should be broadly representative of the nearest primary school leavers.

      Yet clearly as you can see above, WLFS is not remotely representative of the nearest primary school leavers. So something’s just a bit odd. Something is preventing the nearest disadvantaged children from attending this school in the numbers which the admissions code suggests they should.

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    • Patrick, why raise the issue of a “small sample size” at all? I know this makes you sound very statistically minded but really, to anybody who knows anything at all about statistics, this only make you look stupid.

      The plain fact is: there is no ‘sample’ here. The numbers above deal with a 100% of the pupils of these schools. There is no sampling at all.

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  3. As the academisation and free school programmes rumble on, you do start to wonder in inner London where all the disadvantaged pupils will end up. An interesting piece.

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  4. A couple of further points on the WLFS admissions process…

    I have been trying, and failing, to get them to release a list of their founders for the last year. Emails go unanswered, phone calls aren’t returned. This is despite a legal requirement for them to make it available on request. it might have 3 names on it. It might have 500. They don’t seem keen to share this information.

    Separately, I have added up (for work, believe it or not) the cost of their uniform. £290 all in, including two different PE kits. All compulsory and 90% of it only available from the same supplier that Eton, Harrow and Rugby use. Of course, this won’t have any effect whatsoever on whether people on low incomes apply, and you would be a fool and a communist to think otherwise.

    Finally, their first two years’ intakes had zero kids with serious special needs (either statemented or at school action plus), according to DFE figures. Zero. I have never encountered this before. Even the London Oratory, who wrote the book on fiddling admissions, have a few. Completely coincidentally, the WLFS website also strongly recommends that any prospective parent makes an appointment with the head to discuss their child before applying. I will not speculate on the content of these conversations and any effect they may have on who applies to the school (because the very litigious Toby Young might read this). You may wish to draw your own conclusions.

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