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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

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times