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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.