Michael Gove arrives at Downing Street ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting on February 4 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Free schools have become a bad news story for the Tories

The combined attacks by the Lib Dems and Labour are further weakening public support for Gove's project. 

After David Laws's thinly-disguised sally against Michael Gove at the weekend, today brings fire from another wing of the government. The Guardian reports that the Treasury (or at least the yellow half of it) has ordered Gove to bring the budget for free schools "back under control". This after he was accused of raiding £400m from the Basic Needs budget for primary school places to fund his flagship programme. Once viewed as the height of Tory-Lib Dem cooperation, education has become a central point of antagonism.

The row over funding is the third significant disagreement between the coalition parties in this area in recent months. Last October, Nick Clegg denounced Gove as an ideologue for allowing the permanent use of unqualified teachers in free schools and academies (coinciding with the row over the Al-Madinah institution). Then in February, Laws argued that Ofsted should be given new powers to inspect academy chains having criticised the Education Secretary's decision to dismiss Labour peer Sally Morgan as the organisation's head. Now, concerned by the continuing primary school places crisis, the Lib Dems question Gove's funding priorities. 

The result is that free schools, regarded by many Tories as the coalition's greatest achievement, have become a bad news story for the government. When the coalition was first formed, Labour frequently complained about the "two-against-one" dynamic that saw the Conservatives and the Lib Dems unite to trash their economic record. In the case of education, the same force is now pulling against the Tories. Both Labour and the Lib Dems argue for an end to the use of unqualified teachers in state schools, for tougher inspections of academies and for the government to prioritise funding of new primary school places, rather than new free schools (a significant number of which open in areas with a surplus of places). 

Free schools have never been as popular as their admirers in Westminster assume. A recent YouGov survey for the Times found that just 27 per cent support them, with 47 per cent opposed. Sixty six per cent agree with Labour and the Lib Dems that the schools should only be able to employ qualified teachers and 56 per cent believe the national curriculum should be compulsory for all institutions. On the ground, parents are voting with their feet. Research by Labour found that just 49 (28 per cent) of the 174 free schools opened since 2011 reached their capacity for first year intake. 

It would be one thing to lavish state funding on free schools were there an overall surplus of places. But it is another when an extra 240,000 primary school places are needed by this September merely to keep pace with the birth rate. Yet at present, a third of free schools are located in areas without a shortage of places. 

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 last year: "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 Department for Education emphasises that it has provided an additional £5bn to councils to create new places, double the amount spent by the last government over the same period. 

But it is far from clear that this will prove sufficient. As Conservative councillor David Simmonds, an executive member of the Local Government Association, has warned, "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." Both Labour and the Lib Dems agree, encouraging voters to do likewise. Just as the economy is coming for the right for the Tories, it seems that education is going wrong. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity