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Gove's free schools policy is already in trouble

Even the parents wanting to set up free schools are frustrated.

From the outset, the coalition's support of free schools was heralded as its defining education policy. Groups of parents, teachers or community members would be given the power and resources to set up their own schools, particularly in areas of high social deprivation. These groups would sweep aside the concerns of the bureaucratic local authorities and build pioneering institutions that would help lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. In June 2010, Gove said that the principle behind free schools was "closing the attainment gap" between the poorest and richest students.

A year later, we learned that there were 323 free school proposals but only 40 groups received the go-ahead: nine out of ten proposals were rejected. Four free schools are expected to open in September. The former Labour adviser Peter Hyman is now aiming to set up one in east London. Considering that there are 20,000 state schools in England and the approved free schools add up to just 0.2 per cent of this, it's a droplet in the ocean. By my estimate, they will take in no more than 4,000 children - 2 per cent of Gove's initial target of 200,000. This statistic alone indicates that the policy has failed. Even if every free school were stuffed with poor children, the total number would amount to a tiny fraction of the four million children living in poverty. Given Gove's stated intention to close the attainment gap, it's worth asking how many free schools will serve our poorest children.

My analysis indicates very few. First, of the 40 approved schools, six are currently private; there is no reason to believe that their intake will change significantly when they become state-funded. Furthermore, 11 of the schools are religious, catering for the Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian faiths. Research carried out by the Campaign for State Education indicates that faith schools tend to attract children from prosperous backgrounds.

Nearly a third of free schools will be run by private companies. Educational chains such as Ark, Harris and E-Act have been running inner-city academies for years but are now part of the free schools programme in a big way. A parent-led group behind an unsuccessful application to become a free school lamented that going with a private provider was the "only game in town". Such companies are used to working with poorer pupils but a close analysis of their methods shows that their achievements are patchy. Many rely on vocational qualifications, excluding undesirable students and cherry-picking the brightest pupils to boost results.

Just four of the approved schools meet Gove's initial criteria for free schools: local parents setting up schools to help poor children. But even these are open to question. The BBG Parents' Alliance's school in Kirklees is a bona fide effort by parents to establish a school in their deprived community. Yet a report published the Department for Education (DfE) last year said that the 900-pupil institution will create a surplus of school places in the area. The millions spent on the BBG free school could also be more fairly distributed among existing local schools.

Cloak and dagger

For such a tiny programme, despite what seemed like efforts by the government to hide the figures, we know the free schools project is proving expensive: 97 civil servants are working on it, the New Schools Network has been given £500,000 to promote its cause, and many others, such as the free schools founders and private companies, are almost certainly in receipt of considerable sums, as yet undisclosed.

As nearly every free school's unique selling point is small class sizes, we also know that they are going to be very expensive to staff. This isn't even counting the capital costs of the buildings to house such schools. The DfE has refused all Freedom of Information requests for us to know these - even when presented as parliamentary questions - but we know that they are going to be high. In February, the Today programme reported that the cost of one school is going to be £15m.

The DfE's reluctance to reveal the costs signals another problem: the general cloak-and-dagger secrecy surrounding the project. Even the parents wanting to set up free schools are frustrated. One free school campaigner told me: "Our biggest concern is the lack of transparency in decision-making at the DfE. Policy is being made up on the hoof. There appears to be no strategic consideration of where new schools are needed." On top of this, there are concerns that because "amateur" parents are in charge and untrained teachers are allowed to teach, standards will be low.

The discontent is widespread. Commenters on the Local Schools Network website express concern that free schools will increase social segregation and suck resources away from existing institutions. In many cases, the programme involves taking resources from our poorest children in local authority schools and giving them to a privileged few. Small though it is, the free schools policy is already proving a disaster.

Francis Gilbert is a teacher. He blogs for the Local Schools Network and is the author of "The Last Day of Term", to be published in July by Short Books (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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