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.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.