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 I’m thinking of joining the Labour Party

There’s a lot to admire in the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party – perhaps it’s time to get involved.

Why I'm leaving Labour”, as Owen Hatherley remarked a few days ago, appears to be the new “why I’m leaving London”. However, aside from a few high(ish) profile departures, the bigger story is the net increase in membership of 90,000 that Labour has enjoyed since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Indeed, the last few weeks have got me seriously considering whether I should add to these impressive numbers and join the party myself.

For me, one of the most cheering pieces of news since Corbyn’s victory was the convening of an advisory committee to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, including policy and academic heavyweights such as Mariana Mazzucato, Ann Pettifor, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. It was a clear indication that some fresh and serious thought was going to be put into the creation of a plan for remaking and rejuvenating the British economy. The early signs are that Labour will be offering a dynamic, high-tech economy of the future, with good pay and job security at its heart, which will stand in sharp contrast to the miserable Randian dystopia George Osborne has been pushing the country into during his time at the Treasury.

Also refreshing has been Corbyn’s use of Prime Minister’s Questions to give a voice to those affected by austerity. Given that our media and political class is disproportionately populated by people from privileged backgrounds, it’s really important that an extra effort is made to ensure that we hear first-hand from those bearing the brunt of these policies. It’s right in principle, and it turns out to be good politics as well. Because apparently many Conservative MPs are too stupid to realise that responding to the concerns of working class people with loud, derisive braying merely provides the public with a neat and powerful illustration of whose side each party is on.

Corbyn has taken a lot of flak in the media, and from MPs on the Labour right, for his response to the Paris attacks. But as someone who researches, teaches and writes on British foreign policy, Middle East politics and security issues, my admiration for the Labour leader has only grown in recent days.  

In the atmosphere immediately after a terrorist atrocity, a discourse emerges where caring about the victims and being serious about dealing with the threat are taken to be synonymous with advocating military responses and clampdowns on civil liberties, irrespective of the fact that fourteen years of pursuing this approach under the “war on terror” has only served to make the problem far worse. At times like these it takes a great deal of courage to articulate a careful, cautious approach emphasising non-military forms of action that address root causes and whose effects may be less dramatic and immediate. Many people were simply not in the mood to hear this sort of thing from Corbyn, but his policies are objectively more likely to make us safer, and I admire him for not being intimidated into silence despite the gallons of vitriol that have been poured on him.

In general, on national security, there is something heavily gendered about the narrative that casts the alpha male Cameron keeping Britain safe versus the dithering milquetoast Corbyn who doesn't understand the harsh realities. We reached the nadir of this stone age machismo during the last election campaign when Very Serious Jeremy Paxman put it to Ed Miliband that he couldn’t have Vladimir Putin in a fight.  After the disasters of the last decade and a half, the time is right to articulate a more intelligent, sophisticated alternative to the expensive, counterproductive militarism of the Conservative Party and the Labour right wing.

The question of whether Corbyn can win an election is certainly one that preoccupies me. He will struggle to attract voters to his right just as Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall would have struggled to win back votes Labour lost to the SNP and the Greens. Enthusing and rallying the perhaps 30 per cent of the electorate who are broadly on the left is one thing, but adding the other 6-7 per cent that you need to win an election is another challenge altogether. Corbyn and his team have been on a steep learning curve since their shock victory in September, and they urgently need to clarify their message and improve their media strategy. Almost all the corporate press are bound to remain hostile, but there are ways to provide them with as little ammunition as possible.

More importantly, Corbyn’s team need to find ways of connecting directly with the public and bring them actively into what he's trying to do. In the current anti-politics mood, an opposition party based on a genuine, engaged mass movement could be a formidable force. Initiatives like “Momentum” will need to make quick and substantial progress.

Fundamentally, Corbyn’s Labour has to do what everyone concerned with genuine social progress has had to do throughout history: articulate points of view that go against prevailing orthodoxy, and do so in as persuasive a way as possible. By definition, these are battles against the odds. But you can't win them if you don't fight them. And for me, and I think most people on Corbyn's part of the left, five years of austerity have taken us beyond the point where we can accept the least worst version of the status quo. That prospect has simply become too painful for too many people.

So will I join? I’m still unsure. Without doubt there will be times when the leadership needs constructive, even robust criticism, and as a writer and researcher I may feel more free to articulate that outside of the Labour tribe. But whatever choice I make, the point for me is that this isn’t really about Jeremy Corbyn so much as the wider movement he represents, demanding a real change of course on politics, economics and foreign policy. That collective effort is something I will certainly continue to play an active part in.

David Wearing researches UK-Saudi-Gulf relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he teaches courses on Middle East politics and international political economy. He sits on the steering committee of Campaign Against Arms Trade.