In the early years of the coalition, as the economy stagnated and the Tory back benches agitated and plotted, education was presented as the government’s greatest success story. The minister responsible, Michael Gove, was lauded by his many admirers in the press as a daring radical, devoted to battling the educational establishment, which he charmingly called “the Blob”, and championing parents’ interests.
With the aid of powers normally reserved for emergency anti-terrorism laws, he rushed through legislation in 2010 to allow the creation of “free schools” and the conversion of all primary and secondary schools to academies. The system was transformed from one in which most schools were accountable to local authorities to one in which the secretary of state reigns supreme.
Four years later, the consequences of the revolution in Whitehall are becoming clear – and they are not positive. The recent wave of attacks by the Liberal Democrats on Mr Gove was motivated partly by politics (no Conservative minister is more loathed by the Lib Dems’ target voters) but it was also a rational response to policy failure.
At a time of unprecedented demand for primary school places, the Education Secretary’s free schools experiment is exacerbating, rather than diminishing, the crisis. The number of infant classes with more than 30 children has doubled in the past year. Meanwhile, a recent survey showed that 87 per cent of school head teachers are worried about the shortage of primary places and one in every four heads is “very concerned”.
In these circumstances, all resources should be concentrated on ensuring that no child is denied the basic right to an education. Yet Mr Gove has diverted £400m from a programme designed for this purpose and used it to fill a funding gap in the free schools budget.
In doing so, he is expanding supply in areas where there is little or no demand. The National Audit Office’s recent study found that only 19 per cent of secondary free schools are in areas of “high or severe” need and that 42 schools, costing £241m, have opened in districts “with no forecast need”.
Though routinely described by the Department for Education as “hugely popular” with parents, just 49 (28 per cent) of the 174 free schools opened since 2011 reached their capacity for first-year intake. As the 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.”
Mr Gove’s defence is that the institutions offer parents choice in areas where there may be no shortage of places but there is a shortage of good schools. Parents and others, however, are now rightly questioning this claim. Rarely a week passes without one of Mr Gove’s little platoons making the headlines for the wrong reasons.
The al-Madinah School in Derby has announced that its secondary arm will close this summer after an Ofsted report described it as being in “chaos” and rated it as “inadequate” in every category. The flagship West London Free School (set up by the journalist Toby Young) is advertising for its third head teacher in three years and has spent £9m on a new office block despite using only one of its two existing sites for lessons. The £8m Boulevard Academy in Hull opened with just 43 pupils. It is little wonder that the Treasury has reportedly warned Mr Gove to stop the budget “spiralling out of control”. The waste and failure is the inevitable result of a system based on the premise that the Education Secretary can supervise any number of institutions from his desk in Whitehall. Without clear lines of accountability, “innovation” becomes a licence to disregard basic standards.
It remains too early to judge whether free schools are raising overall performance. Mr Gove is sincere in his desire to improve the life chances of the poorest and to reduce the advantage enjoyed by the 7 per cent of pupils who are privately educated as well as those who attend the best state schools. But he cannot afford to dismiss well-meaning critics of the project as “dinosaurs” in thrall to “producer interests”. It is not ideology to question why, at a time of austerity, expensive free schools should be privileged over all others.