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.

Photo: Bulent Kilic/Getty Images
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We need to talk about the origins of the refugee crisis

Climate change, as much as Isis, is driving Europe's migrant crisis, says Barry Gardiner. 

Leaders get things wrong. Of course they do. They have imperfect information. They face competing political pressures. Ultimately they are human. The mark of a bad leader is not to make the wrong decision. It is to make no decision at all.

David Cameron’s paralysis over the unfolding human tragedy of Syrian refugees should haunt him for the rest of his natural life. At a time when political and moral leadership was most called for he has maintained the most cowardly silence. 

All summer, as Italy, Greece, Hungary and Macedonia have been trying to cope with the largest migration of people this continent has seen in 70 years, Downing Street has kept putting out spokespeople to claim the government is working harder than any other country “to solve the causes of the crisis” and that this justifies the UK’s refusal to take more than the 216 refugees it has so far admitted directly from Syria. The truth is it hasn’t and it doesn’t.

Anyone who truly wants to solve the causes of the nightmare that is Syria today must look beyond the vicious and repressive regime of Assad or the opportunistic barbarism of ISIL. They need to understand why it was that hundreds of thousands of ruined farmers from Al-Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor and AL-Raqqa in the northeast of that country flocked to the cities in search of government assistance in the first place - only to find it did not exist.

Back in 2010 just after David Cameron became Prime Minister, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that, after the longest and most severe drought in Syria, since records began in 1900, 3 million Syrians were facing extreme poverty. In 2011 the International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report claiming that climate change “will increase the risks of resource shortages, mass migration and civil conflict”. These were some of the deep causes of the Syrian civil war just as they are the deep causes of the conflicts in Tunisia, South Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Egypt. So what about Cameron’s claim that his government has been working to solve them?

Two years after that Institute for Strategic Studies report pointed out that conflict as a result of  drought in countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia had already claimed 600,000 lives,  the parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls found the UK Government had issued more than 3,000 export licenses for military and intelligence equipment worth a total of £12.3bn to countries which were on its own official list for human rights abuses; including to Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Syria. That was the same year that UK aid to Africa was cut by 7.4% to just £3.4billion. Working to solve the root causes? Or working to fuel the ongoing conflict?

A year later in 2014 home office minister, James Brokenshire told the House of Commons that the government would no longer provide support to the Mare Nostrum operation that was estimated to have saved the lives of more than 150,000 refugees in the Mediterranean, because it was providing what the government called a “pull factor”. He said: “The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing, is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.”

In fact the ending of the rescue operation did not reduce the number of refugees. It was not after all a “pull factor” but the push factor – what was happening in Syria - that proved most important. Earlier this summer, David Cameron indicated that he believed the UK should consider joining the United States in the bombing campaign against Isis in Syria, yet we know that for every refugee fleeing persecution under Assad, or the murderous thuggery of ISIS, there is another fleeing the bombing of their city by the United States in its attempt to degrade ISIS.  The bombing of one’s home is a powerful push factor.

The UK has not even fulfilled Brokenshire’s promise to fight the people smugglers. The Financial Action Task Force has reported that human trafficking generates proportionately fewer Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) annually than other comparable crimes because the level of awareness is lower. Prosecuting the heads of the trafficking networks has not been a focus of government activity. Scarcely a dozen minor operatives pushing boats on the shores of Turkey have actually been arrested. But it is not the minnows that the UK government should be concentrating on. It is their bosses with a bank account in London where a series of remittances are coming in from money transfer businesses in Turkey or North Africa. Ministers should be putting real pressure on UK banks who should be registering SARs so the authorities can investigate and begin to prosecute the ultimate beneficiaries who are driving and orchestrating this human misery. They are not.

That image, which few of us will ever completely erase from our mind, will no doubt prompt David Cameron to make a renewed gesture. An extra million for refugee camps in Jordan, or perhaps a voluntary commitment to take a couple of thousand more refugees under a new European Quota scheme. But if the UK had been serious about tackling the causes of this crisis it had the opportunity in Addis Ababa in July this year at the Funding for Sustainable Development Conference. In fact it failed to bring forward new money for the very climate adaptation that could stem the flow of refugees. In Paris this December the world will try to reach agreement on combating the dangerous climate change that Syria and North Africa are already experiencing. Without agreement there, we in the rich world will have to get used to our trains being disrupted, our borders controls being breached and many more bodies being washed up on our beaches.