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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder