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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.