Sunday, 20 October 2013

What do the opinion polls tell us about support for free schools?

Opinion polling is a valuable but dangerous tool. Dangerous because superficial analysis can lead to badly misjudging the public mood. And because so few people understand how polls actually work. This weekend I saw people tweeting puzzlement at two polls; one showing Labour with a 3% lead and one with a 11%. But with a margin of error of 4% and very different methodologies between the two polls it's not surprising at all. (The trick to reading voter polls is to look at trends across multiple polls over time).

These two polls happened to both contain questions about free schools after an eventful week for the policy. There isn't really much polling on free schools for such an important policy (politically at least) so it's worth unpicking in some detail. 

First ComRes for the Independent on Sunday asked:

Parents, teachers and charities should be encouraged to set up new state schools, even if there are already schools in the local area:

Agree 27%
Disagree 36%
Don’t know 37%

So free schools are unpopular? Not so fast... This is a badly designed, and so misleading, question. The problem is it asks two different things in one question. First should non-state providers be allowed to set up schools and then should they be allowed to do so even if provision already exists. It doesn't tell us how many like the idea of non-state providers but not the "waste" of surplus capacity. And it's confusing- as can be seen by the high number of "don't knows".

Meanwhile Opinium for the Observer asked some much more detailed questions. First they looked at general support for the policy:
"Like state / comprehensive schools "free schools" are schools that are funded by the government but, unlike state / comprehensive schools, they are not under the control of the local authority. They can be set up by parents, teachers, charities or businesses and are free to attend."

44% believed that "free schools" are generally a good thing for education in the UK while 22% said they are a bad thing; with a further 22% saying neither good nor bad and 12% don't knows.

Here the focus is on the "free" part not the surplus places and that bit of the policy seems popular; even among Labour voters who were 39/30 in favour (Lib Dems were even more pro - 50/18).

On the specific issue of whether such schools should be allowed to hire unqualified teachers respondents were asked:

"While teachers hired by state / comprehensive schools have to have a PGCE or equivalent teaching qualification, "free schools" are free to hire whoever they choose, as private schools do. The advantage of this is that they can employ people who have more experience of the world outside teaching while the disadvantage is that it may risk children being taught by under qualified teachers."

A resounding 60% were concerned that "free schools" are able to hire teachers who may not have a PGCE or equivalent teaching qualification while 30% are not. Amongst all three parties' voters there were more "concerned" than "not concerned". So that bit of the policy doesn't seem very popular.

But perhaps most interesting Opinium asked about what respondents wanted a future Government to do about free schools. Here responses were divided. 23% wanted the policy to continue as is (this was the most popular for Tory voters).

27% wanted what is - in effect - Labour's current policy- to allow them to continue but only in areas where there aren't enough places and if all teachers are qualified. This was the most popular option for Liberal Democrats - just beating leaving the policy as it is - and the equal most popular amongst Labour voters.

Just 12% wanted to prevent any further free schools from opening while leaving the existing ones alone and 20% thought that all free schools should be taken under local authority control (this was equal most popular with Labour voters).

What does all this tell us? It seems the majority of voters like the idea of non-state providers being allowed to set up their own schools but that they really don't like the idea of unqualified teachers. Most people want the policy to continue in some form but those that do are pretty split between allowing them in areas that already have enough places. So Labour's current policy is probably most in tune with the public (if they could explain it clearly...)

I expect, as we approach the next election, more polling companies will look in detail at this issue so we should be able to see if these hypotheses hold as people learn more about the policy.

Thanks to Daniel Boffey at the Observer for sending me the Opinium numbers. When these appear on the Opinium website I'll add a link.


  1. There was also a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times 3 weeks which included several education questions: they usefully broke down the issue even further which uncovered the fact that while "free schools" are unpopular "academies" are popular. This is despite the question describing academies in terms that make clear that they're basically the same thing as free schools. It further underlines the fact that public opinion is a capricious beast!

    The full tables are here (education questions are the last few page)

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