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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.

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

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.