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
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.