How free schools are still failing to address the places crisis

42 schools have opened in areas with "no forecast need" and only 19% of secondary places are in areas of "high or severe" need.

The Department for Education is hailing today's National Audit Office report on free schools as proof that, contrary to what Labour claims, the schools are providing places where they are needed. The study found that 70 per cent of the 114,000 places from open or approved schools are in districts "forecasting some need", with 87 per cent of primary places in those with "high or severe need". 

But what the department doesn't mention is that in many of the areas with the greatest need, the schools are still failing to help. Only 19 per cent of secondary places are in areas of "high or severe" need and 42 schools, costing £241m, have opened in districts "with no forecast need". In addition, the department has received no applications to open primary schools in half of districts with high or severe forecast need by 2015-16. 

In response, a DfE spokesperson has said: "As the NAO highlights in its report, most of our free schools are open in areas facing a need for school places. However, the programme is not our primary response to the shortage of school places. We are spending £5bn on new school places up to 2015, in addition to the money spent on free schools. This is more than double the amount spent by the last government over an equivalent four-year period." 

But it remains doubtful whether this is enough to address the crisis. As Conservative councillor David Simmonds, the chair of the Local Government Association, has warned, almost half of English schools districts will have more primary pupils than places within two years and "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." 

Further evidence that the schools are not meeting demand is supplied by the finding that a quarter of free schools places remain unfilled, with only 30 per cent achieving their planned admission number and 38 per cent falling short by at least one-fifth. But given the dim view most parents take of the institutions, that may not be surprising. A recent but underreported YouGov poll showed that just 27% of the public support the schools, with 47% opposed.

Michael Gove speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.