At least three-quarters of the coalition’s flagship free schools have admitted a lower proportion of deprived pupils than is average for their wider neighbourhood, government data shows.
Figures lodged in the House of Commons library by the Department for Education reveal that 18 of the 24 free schools that opened last autumn have taken a lower proportion of children eligible for free school meals than is average for schools with pupils of the same age group across their local authority.
To be entitled to a free school meal, a child’s family income has to be below £16,000. Ministers had claimed that free schools would not disproportionately benefit better-off families and would empower working-class families.
According to the data, at St Luke’s, a primary school in the London borough of Camden, the percentage of pupils registered as eligible for a free lunch is zero. The average proportion of children claiming the benefit in state primary schools across Camden is 38.8%.
At Nishkam free school, a primary in Birmingham, just 6.4% of children are eligible for free lunches. Across the city’s primary schools, 33.2% of children are entitled to the benefit. At Bristol free school – a secondary school – 8.8% of children are eligible for free school meals, while across the city’s state secondary schools, 22.5% of pupils are entitled to the benefit.
Michael Gove, the education secretary, has said the creation of free schools is intended to tackle flaws in the education system, including a concentration of the weakest schools in “our poorest towns and cities”. The policy is modelled on charter schools in New York, which are said to have closed the gap between inner-city students and their peers in the suburbs.
The figures were obtained by Kerry McCarthy, the Labour MP for Bristol East, through parliamentary questions and relate to the academic year 2011-12. McCarthy said the data was at odds with Gove’s claim that free schools targeted disadvantage. “In future, we will have to be careful when assessing the performance of free schools, as they have a higher proportion of children from wealthier backgrounds,” she said, adding that she was worried that the schools “diverted funds from where they are most needed”.
But Toby Young, an author and journalist who set up the West London free school, disputed the figures for the proportion of children on free school meals in his school’s local authority. According to the data, 23.3% of children at his school are entitled to free school meals, compared with 32.1% in secondaries across the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.
Young said it was unfair to compare the percentage of pupils who were eligible for a free lunch at one school with the average for pupils of a similar age group at state schools across an entire local authority and leave out those children at private schools. “The relevant benchmark is the percentage of children among all local children of secondary school age who are eligible for free school meals, not just those at state schools, and by that measure we’re spot on,” he said.
He argued that free schools were not intended to be exclusively for children from deprived backgrounds. “Part of the rationale is that they will help break down the educational apartheid we currently have in this country whereby better-off parents opt out of public education,” he said. “If free schools can attract parents who would otherwise go private then, of course, they will end up with a lower-than-borough-average number of children on free school meals, but that’s the inevitable consequence of creating a genuinely comprehensive school. Provided the schools aren’t just catering for that demographic, but have comprehensive intakes as our school does, I don’t see a problem with that.”
At four of the free schools, the percentage of children eligible for a free lunch is higher than or the same as it is for neighbouring schools for pupils of the same age.
At Aldborough E-Act free school, a primary in Redbridge, north-east London, the proportion of pupils entitled to a free lunch is 21.5%, compared with 19.4% across primary schools in Redbridge. At two of the schools, the data was either unavailable or the sample size was too small to convert it into a statistically significant percentage.
A spokeswoman from the Department for Education said the free schools programme was “still in its early days”. “Many of these schools still only have one year group, so it is far too early to draw any firm conclusions from these figures. Indeed, we can expect their cohorts to change considerably over time as the schools become known to more groups of people locally,” she said.
The spokeswoman added that the location of a school did not ensure that the pupils would be from a deprived background because “parents are free to select their school of choice”.
Free schools are one of the most prominent of the Conservative party’s “big society” projects. The schools can be founded by parents, charities and teachers, although in many cases faith organisations, education companies or existing academy sponsors have taken the lead. The schools are run as academies and can opt to teach only the core elements of the national curriculum.