Gove's free schools are failing to solve the school places crisis

Almost half of English schools districts will soon have too few places for pupils. But free schools continue to open in areas with a surplus.

For months education figures have been warning that England will soon face a chronic shortage of primary school places, a problem exacerbated by Michael Gove's decision to open free schools in areas where there is already a surplus.

The latest to sound the alarm is the Local Government Association (LGA). Its chairman David Simmonds warns that almost half of English schools districts will have more primary pupils than places within two years and that "the process of opening up much-needed schools is being impaired by a one-size-fits-all approach and in some cases by the presumption in favour of free schools and academies." 

Of the 145 free schools approved in Waves 2 and 3 of the programme, 20 per cent are located in areas where there is at least a 10 per cent surplus of places. The LGA has responded by echoing Labour's call for the schools to only open in areas with a shortage. As Simmonds said, "Local councils have a legal duty to ensure there is a school place for every child in their area but they are being hampered by uncertainty and unnecessary restrictions". Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said: "In choosing to prioritise school capital funding in areas with surplus places through his free schools programme, David Cameron is showing he is out of touch with the needs of ordinary people by failing to meet basic need for school places."

Michael Gove's defence is that the schools offer parents choice in areas where there may no be shortage of places but there is a lack of good schools. As he said in response to the LGA: "We have more than doubled funding for new school places and we are also setting up great new free schools, which are giving parents a choice of high quality school places in areas Labour neglected".

The Education Secretary can point to the fact that 75 per cent of the 24 free schools inspected by Ofsted (a sample too small to draw any firm conclusions) were rated as good or oustanding, significantly higher than the average figure of 64 per cent. But one concern remains that free schools are not opening in those areas in the greatest need, with more located in authorities whose schools are in the top ten per cent than those whose schools are in the bottom ten per cent. As Southwark school governor Annie Powell recently noted at Left Foot Forward, "no primary free schools have been approved for Medway, Hull, Suffolk, Portsmouth or Peterborough, the bottom five performing authorities on the main measure of performance (percentage obtaining level 4 or above in both English and maths). Contrast this with the two primary free schools in Richmond upon Thames and the three going to Wandsworth."

But standards aside, Gove is still unable to explain how free schools will deliver the 240,00 new primary school places needed by 2014-15. An additional 93 schools will open this month, taking the total to 174 but 415 new openings are needed every year to keep pace with the rise in pupil numbers.

Until he's able to get close to meeting that target, Gove's priority should be responding to what it is being accurately described as a school places crisis. And, whatever their other merits, it's already clear that free schools are not the best means of doing so.

Update: The Department for Education has been in touch to point out that it is spending £5bn between now and 2015 on creating new school places, stating that this is a "massive increase" compared to what Labour spent. Here's the full response from a DfE spokesperson:

We are spending £5bn by 2015 on creating new school places — more than double the amount spent by the previous government in the same timeframe. We worked closely with councils on the reforms to school place funding so it is now more accurate than ever before - targeting money exactly where places are needed.

Seventy per cent of all open free schools are in areas of basic need, while all the open and planned free schools will deliver 130,000 new places. They will continue to open where there is demand from parents for good schools and help manage the pressure caused by rising birth rates on the school system.

Boris Johnson with Toby Young and pupils at the opening of the West London Free School. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Sadiq Khan likely to be most popular Labour leader, YouGov finds

The Mayor of London was unusual in being both well-known, and not hated. 

Sadiq Khan is the Labour politician most likely to be popular as a party leader, a YouGov survey has suggested.

The pollsters looked at prominent Labour politicians and asked the public about two factors - their awareness of the individual, and how much they liked them. 

For most Labour politicians, being well-known also correlated with being disliked. A full 94 per cent of respondents had heard of Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader. But when those who liked him were balanced out against those who did, his net likeability rating was -40, the lowest of any of the Labour cohort. 

By contast, the Labour backbencher and former army man Dan Jarvis was the most popular, with a net likeability rating of -1. But he also was one of the least well-known.

Just four politicians managed to straddle the sweet spot of being less disliked and more well-known. These included former Labour leadership contestants Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, and Hilary Benn. 

But the man who beat them all was Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of Lodon. 

YouGov's Chris Curtis said that in terms of likeability Khan "outstrips almost everyone else". But since Khan only took up his post last year, he is unlikely to be able to run in an imminent Labour contest.

For this reason, Curtis suggested that party members unhappy with the status quo would be better rallying around one of the lesser known MPs, such as Lisa Nandy, Jarvis or the shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer. 

He said: "Being largely unknown may also give them the opportunity to shape their own image and give them more space to rejuvenate the Labour brand."

Another lesser-known MP hovering just behind this cohort in the likeability scores is Clive Lewis, a former journalist and army reservist, who served in Afghanistan. 

Lewis, along with Nandy, has supported the idea of a progressive alliance between Labour and other opposition parties, but alienated Labour's more Eurosceptic wing when he quit the frontbench over the Article 50 vote.

There is nevertheless space for a wildcard. The YouGov rating system rewards those who manage to achieve the greatest support and least antagonism, rather than divisive politicians who might nevertheless command deep support.

Chuku Umunna, for example, is liked by a larger share of respondents than Jarvis, but is also disliked by a significant group of respondents. 

However, any aspiring Labour leader should heed this warning - after Corbyn, the most unpopular Labour politician was the former leader, Ed Miliband. 

Who are YouGov's future Labour leaders?

Dan Jarvis

Jarvis, a former paratrooper who lost his wife to cancer, is a Westminster favourite but less known to the wider world. As MP for Barnsley Central he has been warning about the threat of Ukip for some time, and called Labour's ambiguous immigration policy "toxic". 

Lisa Nandy

Nandy, the MP for Wigan, has been whispered as a possible successor, but did not stand in the 2015 Labour leadership election. (She did joke to the New Statesman "see if I pull out a secret plan in a few years' time"). Like Lewis, Nandy has written in favour of a progressive alliance. On immigration, she has stressed the solidarity between different groups on low wages, a position that might placate the pro-immigration membership. 

Keir Starmer

As shadow Brexit minister and a former director of public prosecutions, Starmer is a widely-respected policy heavyweight. He joined the mass resignation after Brexit, but rejoined the shadow cabinet and has been praised for his clarity of thought. As the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, though, he must fight charges of being a "metropolitan elite". 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.