Remember Universal Credit? It was once a flagship policy but now it’s hidden away in the government’s attic, like Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre. A large measure of the blame must go to Iain Duncan Smith’s “faith-based policy” approach, in which he put his fingers in his ears and refused to listen to anyone who warned about the problems that such a huge IT project might encounter.
Is something similar happening with schools? At the core of the accusations made against Michael Gove by Ofsted’s head, Sally Morgan, and its chief inspector, Michael Wilshaw, is the charge that the education minister is an ideologue, not a pragmatist: he knows that all his reforms have been successful and does not need disabusing of this notion on the occasions when pesky evidence interferes.
To understand how the Department for Education rolls, go back to 2010. The legislation to allow “free schools” was “railroaded” through parliament, in Ed Balls’s words, and prompted a rebellion from Labour and some Lib Dems, who asked for more time to scrutinise it. Then the contract to start the initiative was given to the New Schools Network, the sometime home of Gove’s confidant Dominic Cummings. It got £500,000 without any other organisation being invited to bid for the contract, with Cummings emailing: “Labour has handed hundreds of millions to leftie orgs – if u guys cant navigate this thro the bureauc then not a chance of any new schools starting!!” (You can only hope Cummings never had any involvement with the literacy curriculum.) By casting school reform as a crusade against “the Blob”, Gove has boxed himself into a position where any criticism is dismissed as pinko pleading. Even for those who support his policies, that should be worrying.
More evidence of my thesis: for 16 months, my friend Laura McInerney – a former state school teacher who is now doing a PhD on free schools at the University of Missouri – has been trying to extract information on how applications to start a free school are assessed. She believes, not unreasonably, that knowing more about which applications succeed is a useful thing. It would help both those who want to set up schools in the future and those who want to study why some have succeeded and others (such as al-Madinah in Derby) have failed.
She made the request through freedom of information laws and was denied, with the department arguing the information “would allow opponents of free school applications to attack applications more easily and could undermine local support”. She appealed to the information commissioner, who ruled in her favour, saying there was a “strong” public interest case in taxpayers knowing what decisions governed the allocation of £1.1bn of their money. The DfE refuses to budge. The case goes before a tribunal soon, at which Laura is not entitled to legal aid and plans to represent herself. Having known her for more than a decade, I wish Michael Gove’s lawyers the best of luck.
Stamping out abuse
I’ve started talking about women challenging the government so I’ll go on. The word “inspirational” has been comprehensively debased but there’s no other word to describe Nimco Ali, the British-Somali co-founder of the anti-FGM charity Daughters of Eve. She talks about vaginas more than anyone else I know (which is saying something) and has fought hard to have FGM recognised as what it is – child abuse – rather than a quaint cultural tradition like wearing lederhosen or morris dancing.
The campaign has cost her friends (one accused her of “selling her soul” to the west’s “c***-obsessed culture”) and generated rape and death threats. But it has also been successful: as we go to press, the Department for International Development is launching a five-year programme to combat FGM in ten “priority countries”. Given that British girls are often taken abroad to be “cut”, that’s good news for people at home, too.
Last year, I joined Nia, a Hackney-based charity focusing on violence against women, as chair of the board. Like Laura McInerney, its chief executive, Karen Ingala Smith, wants information. She has asked the government to record every female death that is a result of male violence (as a woman, you are more likely to be killed by a husband or partner than anyone else).
In the meantime, she is doing the work herself: for example, she has found that, in the past two years, 33 women have allegedly been killed by their sons, while Home Office data suggests the figure is ten a year. The list makes grim reading: “battered with metal fireguard and slit throat”; “strangled”; “multiple injuries and decapitation”. None of these deaths made the news, nor did the underlying trend.
To end on a happier note, my favourite story of the week is that of the union boss Bob Crow, shamed by the Daily Mail for going on a luxury cruise while London Underground staff go on strike. Undaunted by photos of him on the beach captioned “the lobster-red baron”, Crow pointed out he’d booked the luxury cruise … from an ad in the Mail.