Support for free schools is collapsing

A new poll shows that just 27% of the public support the schools, down from 36% in mid-September.

Free schools have never been as popular as many in Westminster assume and now support for them is collapsing. After widspread coverage of the scandal-plagued Al-Madinah in Derby, where pupils were allegedly segregated by gender and female teachers forced to wear Islamic dress, a YouGov poll for today's Times shows that just 27% back the schools, down from 36% in mid-September, with 47% opposed. The poll also shows that, on this issue, the public agree with Nick. Sixty six per cent share the Deputy PM's belief that the schools should only be able to employ qualified teachers and 56% believe the national curriculum should be compulsory for all institutions.

Clegg said in his long-trailed speech today: "I am totally unapologetic for believing that, as we continue to build a new type of state funded school system – in which parents are presented with a dizzying range of independent, autonomous schools, each with its own different specialism, ethos or mission – parents can make their choice safe in the knowledge that there are certain safeguards. A safety net, if you like, to prevent their children from falling through the cracks. 

"So, yes, I support free schools and academies, but not with exemptions from minimum standards. That’s the bit I want to see change. And that will be clearly set out in our next General Election manifesto. 

"There is nothing – absolutely nothing – inconsistent in believing that greater school autonomy can be married to certain core standards for all.
 
"And I am totally unapologetic that the Liberal Democrats have our own ideas about how we do that. "

While Michael Gove, a former Times man, is adept at attracting adulation from the media, it seems that the voters remain unconvinced. Sam Coates notes that the "significant shift in public attitude" is "likely to reinforce views expressed in Downing Street that the Education Secretary has not done enough to convince the public of his reform agenda."

If Gove doesn't want his revolution to go the way of Andrew Lansley's and Iain Duncan Smith's, he would be wise to spend less time wooing the leader writers and more time persuading voters. 

Education Secretary Michael Gove at the Conservative conference in Birmingham in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.