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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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