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 is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser