Free schools are the flawed heart of Gove's permanent revolution

Too often founded where they are not needed, the schools are unaccountable to the public and perpetuate the inequalities they are meant to eradicate.

Michael Gove's seemingly permanent revolution continues. Earlier this week, the Education Secretary announced his new-look, 'tougher' GCSEs as the latest stage of his reforms. Within these reforms, the flagship policy is the introduction of free schools, a scheme which has recently expanded again. But they are, in many ways, the flawed heart of Gove’s project and a wider educational failure.

Free schools are paradoxical in nature, on paper billed as part of Gove’s democratisation of education - anyone can get involved and set up a school - they also create a democratic deficit. In what ways are these schools accountable to the public? They're outside of local authority control, so local elections have no influence on their actions or policies. There is always the possibility of joining school boards or becoming a governor but those positions are often the preserve of the very people that set them up in the first place. It’s fine for Gove to give local people the power to shape their area’s education, but how do we make the few who decide to do so accountable to the many in their communities? This problem is even harder to address when it comes to a charity or faith schools.

Early on, there were fears that schools would only ever be set up by middle class parents, or by people with unchecked self-belief in their own ideas about education, with Toby Young the most obvious example. There's nothing wrong with people having theories about what education should look like, or what is best for their area; everybody does. But what qualifies someone to be given state money and the opportunity to set up a school? Obviously, there is a vetting process and Gove can turn down proposals (such as the military style academy, which had its first attempt turned down and its second attempt approved). There are also many examples of well-qualified teachers and educational organisations setting up schools. But  how accountable are these decisions to us, as voters and as taxpayers?

Then there are the funding problems. In a recent piece for Left Foot Forward, a school governor lamented that London faced the danger of running out of school places in certain areas. In this context, then, it's shocking that 20 per cent of free schools are set up in areas with a 10 per cent surplus in school places. This will contribute to a concentration of and perpetuation of the cultural capital of the middle classes and erode education’s potential for social change and movement. How democratic is it that certain areas are ignored, while free schools are established where they aren’t needed? Particularly when, as the coalition is so fond of reminding us, we are in an age of austerity.

One of Gove’s most vicious attacks on Labour is that, in not supporting his reforms, they are opposed to excellence and success. This is as offensive as it is typical. The left, contrary to Gove, does not hate success, but wants it for everyone, rather than a privileged few. There is a large difference between a universal access to, and standard of, education and Gove’s vision. 

Another implicit criticism is that the left does not support specialisms and so favours mediocrity. There's a whole separate and important debate about grammar schools and universalism, but Gove’s pursuit of free schools is detrimental to access to excellence and social mobility. It's not a wholly bad thing that institutions such as the National Autistic Society have set up schools, but are free schools the best way to widen access?

Over the past few months, Gove's political prowess and resilience have become clearer: his public, if lyrically strange, attack on Ed Miliband, his relentless pursuit of reform and his pugnacity when heckled at the head teachers' conference. Gove is a ruthless operator, seemingly emulating Reagan’s ‘Teflon’ status and is widely tipped as a future Conservative leader. But none of this should stop anyone from pointing out the deep democratic and educational flaws in his policies. In his pursuit of a better and more open education system, Gove has achieved the opposite and, in doing so, has lost the trust of thousands who work in it. 

Pupils at the West London Free School. Photograph: Getty Images.

Dan Holden leads on political research at ComRes. He tweets @DanSHolden.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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