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12 May 2014updated 12 Oct 2023 10:40am

Free schools have become a bad news story for the Tories

The combined attacks by the Lib Dems and Labour are further weakening public support for Gove's project. 

By George Eaton

After David Laws’s thinly-disguised sally against Michael Gove at the weekend, today brings fire from another wing of the government. The Guardian reports that the Treasury (or at least the yellow half of it) has ordered Gove to bring the budget for free schools “back under control”. This after he was accused of raiding £400m from the Basic Needs budget for primary school places to fund his flagship programme. Once viewed as the height of Tory-Lib Dem cooperation, education has become a central point of antagonism.

The row over funding is the third significant disagreement between the coalition parties in this area in recent months. Last October, Nick Clegg denounced Gove as an ideologue for allowing the permanent use of unqualified teachers in free schools and academies (coinciding with the row over the Al-Madinah institution). Then in February, Laws argued that Ofsted should be given new powers to inspect academy chains having criticised the Education Secretary’s decision to dismiss Labour peer Sally Morgan as the organisation’s head. Now, concerned by the continuing primary school places crisis, the Lib Dems question Gove’s funding priorities. 

The result is that free schools, regarded by many Tories as the coalition’s greatest achievement, have become a bad news story for the government. When the coalition was first formed, Labour frequently complained about the “two-against-one” dynamic that saw the Conservatives and the Lib Dems unite to trash their economic record. In the case of education, the same force is now pulling against the Tories. Both Labour and the Lib Dems argue for an end to the use of unqualified teachers in state schools, for tougher inspections of academies and for the government to prioritise funding of new primary school places, rather than new free schools (a significant number of which open in areas with a surplus of places). 

Free schools have never been as popular as their admirers in Westminster assume. A recent YouGov survey for the Times found that just 27 per cent support them, with 47 per cent opposed. Sixty six per cent agree with Labour and the Lib Dems that the schools should only be able to employ qualified teachers and 56 per cent believe the national curriculum should be compulsory for all institutions. On the ground, parents are voting with their feet. Research by Labour found that just 49 (28 per cent) of the 174 free schools opened since 2011 reached their capacity for first year intake. 

It would be one thing to lavish state funding on free schools were there an overall surplus of places. But it is another when an extra 240,000 primary school places are needed by this September merely to keep pace with the birth rate. Yet at present, a third of free schools are located in areas without a shortage of places. 

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Gove’s defence is that the schools offer parents choice in areas where there may no be shortage of places but there is a lack of good schools. As he said last year: “We have more than doubled funding for new school places and we are also setting up great new free schools, which are giving parents a choice of high quality school places in areas Labour neglected”. The Department for Education emphasises that it has provided an additional £5bn to councils to create new places, double the amount spent by the last government over the same period. 

But it is far from clear that this will prove sufficient. As 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.” Both Labour and the Lib Dems agree, encouraging voters to do likewise. Just as the economy is coming for the right for the Tories, it seems that education is going wrong. 

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