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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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear