The coalition’s free schools dilemma

Ministers can’t keep costs down, keep the profiteers out <em>and</em> get the revolutionary programm

The government's free schools programme has started with a whimper. Not so long ago, ministers were talking of new schools teaching as many as 220,000 students. Actual number of new schools now likely to open their doors this September: 16.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, denies that this is a disappointment. The programme was always going to start slowly, he says. Free schools are meant to snowball, with increasing numbers opening in each year between now and the election. Except . . . it's not clear that's what is going to happen at all. If something doesn't change, in fact, free schools are always going to remain a sideshow. And no one in government seems sure what to do about it.

It all comes down to buildings – or rather, the money to pay for them. The groups trying to set up free schools are for the most part composed of parents or teachers. They don't generally have a few million quid lying about with which to build a new school. This, the wonks have always said, doesn't really matter. There is no reason new schools need own a building: renting one is quite sufficient. And where there are empty classrooms in existing schools, well, why not let new schools borrow them and pay for the privilege?

The problem is, neither of these things actually seems to work. Free-school groups don't have a credit history, so no one will lease them a building. (The government has said it will guarantee such leases, but it is yet to put its money where its mouth is.) And, unsurprisingly, neither free schools nor existing comprehensives seem all that keen on shacking up together.

So, the first generation of new free schools look like it is mostly going to be set up in buildings specially purchased for the purpose, using government money. And Partnerships for Schools, a quango that until recently seemed destined for the scrapheap, has been given the job of finding them.

The impression those close to the programme give is one of blind panic, with PfS being mandated to do something, anything, to make sure the first new schools can open on schedule.

This is all fine when there are only a few projects in the pipeline. But no one thinks it'll work once there are hundreds. Apart from anything else, it's too expensive. Back in February, a BBC investigation found that one free school had been promised £15m for its new building. You don't have to be an accountant to see that the £100m set aside for the programme isn't going to go very far.

There is another option: allowing free schools to make a profit. If private companies were allowed to make money from state schools, they would have an incentive to invest their own capital. It's this that allowed the free school programme to balloon in Sweden. The British government, though, isn't going to let that happen. Even before last year's election, the Tories weren't keen on the message it sends. With the Liberal Democrats to keep happy, too, profit-making schools are now seen as a complete non-starter.

The Department for Education is trying to fudge this a little by making it harder for free school projects to qualify for government assistance. This will likely mean a shift in type of groups promoting schools, from parent and teacher groups, which can't afford buildings, to big academy chains, which can. That will make it easier for those schools that do qualify to open their doors. But it also represents a quiet acceptance that Gove's original vision, of a parent-led revolution, is never going to fly.

The government wants three things: to create enough new schools to shake up state education; to keep the profiteers out; and to keep the cost to the taxpayer down. But it can't win on all three fronts. One of them is going to have to give. And right now, it looks like the revolution will be the one to get tossed aside.

Jonn Elledge is a journalist covering politics and the public sector. He is currently editor of EducationInvestor magazine.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.