Education Secretary Michael Gove. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The free schools experiment spirals out of control

All resources should be concentrated on ensuring that no child is denied the basic right to an education.

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. 

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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