Are free schools really widening choice?

Parents who want a new local school are offered a free school or nothing.

While many in my party are opposed to free schools in principle, I am reluctant to man the barricades on every occasion one is approved. I am sure many of the schools offer a fine education, with nuanced but important variations from the national curriculum that parents think important and children find stimulating and exciting. Nor do I think Michael Gove is the devil incarnate for introducing them – I suspect he is sincerely trying to improve educational standards in the way he thinks is best, even if I don’t agree with all he is doing (by a long shot).

I do, however, question the assumption that the free school movement is all about parental choice. That’s not how it feels to me.

In my own area, Zac Goldsmith hosted a public meeting a couple of weeks ago to tell local parents that the money promised for a new local education authority school had gone down the plughole with the demise of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme – and that the only realistic way in which central government funding would be secured to deliver a desperately needed new school would be if a successful bid for a free school was made. Two other choices were mentioned – to cut £25 million from other local services or to add five per cent to council tax. Neither seemed attractive. Thus the choice on offer appears to be: "it’s a free school - take it or leave it".

After I wrote about this, Zac has tweeted to me that the free school funding option offers more parental choice than under BSF. Again, that’s not how I see it. Under the free school movement, there may well be multiple local applications for a new school – but the choice of which type of school will emerge rests not with parents but with the Education Secretary, who will ultimately decide which sort of school is best.

I’m also concerned that the Lib Dems are being slightly complacent about all this.  Nick Clegg told the Social Liberal Forum conference on Saturday that he had stopped Gove putting free schools "everywhere". I promise you, Nick, if you have, it doesn’t feel like it on the ground.

If parental choice was at the centre of this programme, parents would first be asked if they wanted an LEA or centrally-funded school, before then being asked what changes they would like to see on that school’s curriculum from the standard. But currently, as one councillor said publicly the other week, "I have to have a new school and I’m going to do whatever I have to in order to get it built, even if I end up having to call it ‘The Michael Gove Free School’".

Which would actually not be such a bad strategy when you consider who is actually going to end up making the choice …

Education Secretary Michael Gove at The Royal Courts of Justice to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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As crime moves online, the police need the investment in technology to follow

Technology offers solutions, not just threats.

It’s perhaps inevitable that as the world becomes more digital, so does crime. This week Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, recognised that online crime is as serious as face-to-face crime. “Hate is hate,” Saunders wrote referring to internet abuse, and the police should protect people from it wherever they are. This will add demand to under-pressure police forces. And it is only the tip of the iceberg. 

Forty-seven per cent of crime involves an online element. Police recorded 30,000 instances of online stalking and harassment last year. People are 20 times more likely to be a victim of fraud than robbery, costing businesses an estimated £144bn a year. On a conservative estimate, 2,500 UK citizens use the anonymous dark web browser, Tor, for illegal purposes such as drug dealing, revenge porn and child sexual exploitation.

The police need new technology to meet demand, a Reform report published today finds. Some progress has been made in recent years. West Midlands Police uses an online portal for people to report incidents. Durham uses evidence-gathering software to collect social media information on suspects, and then instantly compile a report that can be shared with courts. Police have benefited from smartphones to share information, and body-worn cameras, which have reduced complaints against police by 93 per cent.

Yet, Theresa May’s 2016 remarks that police use “technology that lags woefully behind what they use as consumers” still stand. Officers interviewed for Reform’s research implored: “Give us the tools to do our job”.

Online evidence portals should be upgraded to accept CCTV footage. Apps should be developed to allow officers to learn about new digital threats, following the US army’s library of knowledge-sharing apps. Augmented-reality glasses are being used in the Netherlands to help officers identify evidence at digital crime scenes. Officers would save a trip back to the station if they could collect fingerprints on smartphones and statements on body-worn cameras.

New technology requires investment, but forces are reducing the resources put into IT as reserves have dried up. Durham plans to cut spend by 60 per cent between 2015-16 and 2019-20. The government should help fund equipment which can meet demand and return future productivity savings. If the Home Office invested the same as the Department of Health, another department pushing “transformative” technology, it would invest an extra £450m a year. This funding should come from administrative savings delivered through accelerating the Government’s automation agenda, which the think tank Reform has previously calculated would save Whitehall £2.6bn a year.

As crime moves online, police must follow. Saunders is right to point to the importance of meeting it. But technology offers solutions, not just threats. Installing the next generation of equipment will give police the tools to do their jobs, addressing online hate and more. 

Alexander Hitchcock is a senior researcher at reform