Leading article

Proof that the schools revolution isn’t over

Fifty new free schools prove that Nicky Morgan is ready to continue what Michael Gove began

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

For those who assumed that the removal of Michael Gove as Education Secretary marked the end of the Conservatives’ scholastic reforms, this month may hold a surprise. More free schools are coming, The Spectator understands: at least 50 of them. Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan, is due to announce the first of three waves this year. If the Tories win the election, Britain might have 150 more free schools by the end of the year. That means thousands more pupils enjoying independent education within the state system.

This — together with the 4,400 academies that have already opted out of local government control — represents the greatest challenge yet to the monolith of state education. For decades, schools have been run less in the interests of children than those of the teaching unions and local government barons. Michael Gove’s reforms have been resisted because he was trying to switch power from bureaucrats to parents — and, indeed, children. The aim was nothing short of a schools revolution.

The Tories’ coalition partners have proved themselves firmly on the side of the entrenched interests and hostile to change. The Liberal Democrats this week fired what will surely turn out to be one of the silliest missiles of the long election campaign: a 13-page dossier called the ‘Gove Files’, chirping about what they regard as their achievements in thwarting the former education secretary over free schools, rigorous exams and other things. It is a compendium of negativity which exposes the embarrassing fact that the Lib Dems have become saboteurs rather than partners in government.

The Lib Dems are able to claim credit for stopping Gove only thanks to David Cameron’s regrettable decision, during the coalition negotiations in 2010, to allow the junior party the right of veto over important policies it did not like. It is a power which the Prime Minister has only just summoned the courage to overcome — just in time for voters to appreciate that, when it comes to schools, only the Conservatives can claim to be the liberal party. He has backed Ms Morgan, who is to be congratulated for carrying on the fight on behalf of pupils. As is the schools minister, Lord Nash, a genuine expert on the subject who has proved a hardy champion of free schools.

Michael Gove is often denounced as an ideologue, yet free schools represent the very antithesis of ideology in government. They attack the concept of ministers and civil servants sitting in Whitehall directing every detail of how children are taught. They create freedom and allow different approaches to flourish or fail. Gove’s agenda was open-minded: he wanted diversity within the state sector: council schools, academies and free schools all serving their communities in different ways.

Remarkably few free schools have failed. Those who said they would end up run by crazed extremists and fruitcakes have been proved wrong. A free school normally arrives in a district already served by a local state school. To attract pupils, the free school must offer something which parents find more appealing than the alternative.

Labour and the Lib Dems want to undermine free schools by allowing them only in areas where insufficient state school places exist. If there are spare places in bad schools, they say, these should be filled — parental freedom subordinated to bureaucratic convenience. The contempt for parental choice is summed up by one Liberal Democrat who asserted: ‘Parents don’t want choice; they just want their local school to be good.’

But who gets to decide what makes a school good? We need more places in the education system because the population is expanding. For all its talk about ‘education, education, education’, the last Labour government closed, on average, 126 schools a year. Its ministers refused to recognise that the expansion of the EU would increase immigration and lead to greater demand (one in every four children starting school this year will have an immigrant mother; in London it is one in two).

The Conservatives have never had reason to doubt that their free schools would prove successful. But last year David Cameron appeared to wobble. His decision to ditch Michael Gove sent a terrible message to the government’s critics: make enough noise, spread enough disinformation on policy and we will throw in the towel.

In spite of being a former education spokesman, David Cameron has gone quiet on schools during his time as Prime Minister. Perhaps he believes that his Etonian background is an impediment to winning the trust of the public on state schools. But he should not be embarrassed by his first-rate education. What matters is that he now endeavours to offer all parents a better choice — something the hardly less privileged Tristram Hunt (son of a peer, educated at University College School and Trinity College, Cambridge) seeks to deny.

Freedom and choice over take-it-or-leave-it state provision helped Mrs Thatcher win three elections. Championing home-ownership led to people abandoning council housing as fast as they abandoned the Labour party.

In free schools, the Conservatives have a policy which has the potential to do the same for David Cameron. During the coming election campaign, the party should have the courage to emphasise their achievements in education.

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  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    Schools haven’t been under the ‘control’ of local authorities since Local School Management was introduced some 30 years ago. The latest Education Select Committee report reminds readers of that – non-academies can do most things academies can do. The Academies Commission said that in 2013 – it was ignored. Three years earlier the OECD said the UK was among only 4 countries which allowed considerable freedom to its schools. It was referring to 2009. That was before the Coalition with its propaganda about ‘freedom’ came into power.

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    Of course Morgan wasn’t got to stop Gove’s ‘reforms’ which, if you remember, were based on the false premise that England was plummeting down league tables. That misleading bit of rhetoric was punctured when the UK Statistics Watchdog reminded the DfE of the warning, printed at the top of the OECD document ‘ Viewing the UK School System Through the Prism of PISA’, which said PISA figures for the UK in the year 2000 had been flawed and should NOT be used for comparison.

    But Gove authorised a press release which did just that. And the media churned it. No-one seemed much bothered that Gove was complicit in mass deception.

    Despite the UK Stats Watchdog’s criticisms, Morgan told the Sunday Times that England had slipped down international league table’s under Labour’s watch. She forgot the Trends in Science and Maths Survey 2007 which had put England at the top of the European league for the performance of 10- and 14-year-olds in Maths and Science.

    The UK Stats Watchdog hasn’t finished. He’s twice criticised Morgan for misleading statements about illiteracy and innumeracy figures.

    • UnionJihack

      Not just PISA saying it, luv.

      • exSecondaryModernTeacher

        So what other international tests shows this fall? Perhaps you could let us know.

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    Have you missed the following comment from the Education Select Committee?

    ‘…the Government should stop exaggerating the success of academies and be cautious about firm conclusions except where the evidence merits it. Academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school.’

    You’re statement that academisation has wrested ‘control’ from the unions and LA ‘barons’ (love the loaded word, by the way. but weren’t barons responsible for Magna Carta?) seems a little over-blown when subjected to evidence.

  • William MacDougall

    The allegedly “Conservative” Nicky Morgan’s department is persecuting Christians and pursuing a perverted agenda to sexualise children at an early age. She should resign. Either she is incompetent or she is hopelessly left wing:

    • exSecondaryModernTeacher

      Ofsted has denied inappropriate questioning in the two schools where this was alleged to have happened. Read their denial for balance. Then read the actual reports for the two schools concerned: Grindon Hall and Durham Free School. These reveal serious problems. Then read the two Financial Notices to Improve served on both these schools which told them to sort out the way they were spending taxpayers’ money.

      Funnily enough, two Christian schools inspected at the same time: Emmanuel College and Bede Academy, run by the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, made no complaints against Ofsted. Surely if there was a ‘perverted agenda to sexualise children’, these two schools would also have complained.

      The Daily Mail used ‘evidence’ from 6 schools to ‘prove’ a witch hunt against Christian schools. Two were Grindon Hall and Durham Free School; one was a tiny independent school with just 3 pupils whose Ofsted report hasn’t yet been published; a fourth was a Catholic school praised for promoting respect and tolerance; the fifth was a secular school which had actually been upgraded (not marked down) from Requires Improvement to Good, and the sixth was a Jewish school with many problems.

      It seems, however, that for some people the only ‘evidence’ is that which confirms prejudices.

      • William MacDougall

        They would deny it wouldn’t they? It’s Ofsted’s word against the parents and children; I’m inclined to believe the latter.

        • exSecondaryModernTeacher

          I’m inclined to believe neither one nor the other.

          If inspectors can be accused of inappropriate questioning, could this also be levelled at the other adults concerned? How far did the children, especially the younger ones, volunteer the information or were words put in their mouths?

          We won’t ever know. In the meantime, I’m remaining neutral and reading both sides for balance.

          In any case, as I said, Grindon Hall and Durham Free School were found to have many failings. A cynic might say the two schools whipped up a storm about inappropriate questions to divert attention from these failings.

          • William MacDougall

            Or a cynic might say that the inspectors invented failings to hide their anti-religious bias…

          • exSecondaryModernTeacher

            But if Ofsted had an anti-religious bias then every faith
            school would complain, surely. But the two academies run by the Emmanuel Schools Trust, a Christian group, did not complain. Neither did a Jewish school in London. ‘Jewish News’ said some schools had complained but wrote:

            ‘Criticism of Ofsted was not universal. Yesodeh Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in Stamford Hill, which was downgraded in a recent unannounced inspection, paid
            tribute to the sensitivity of the visiting Ofsted inspectors. …“They were very professional and very sensitive to the school’s ethos. There were no incidents of improper questioning. Throughout, we were treated with the greatest respect.”’

            ‘Professional and very sensitive’ doesn’t suggest a
            nationwide plot by Ofsted to undermine faith schools

          • William MacDougall

            Not all inspectors are all bad.

          • exSecondaryModernTeacher

            In other words, the evidence justifying the statement ‘The allegedly “Conservative” Nicky Morgan’s department is persecuting Christians and pursuing a perverted agenda to sexualise children at an early age’ is weak.

          • William MacDougall

            Has she taken steps to ensure Ofsted behaves better in the future?

          • exSecondaryModernTeacher

            ‘I can’t help feeling that some of the criticism is being used as a smokescreen for the palpable weaknesses of leadership and management that inspectors sometimes observe.’

            Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted Chief Inspectors, writing in the Independent yesterday.

            He said 600 faith schools had been inspected since the start of this academic year. Funny that complaints from two, just two, have been used as ‘evidence’ of unacceptable behaviour by inspectors.

          • exSecondaryModernTeacher

            If Ofsted ‘invented’ failings at these two schools, then why have the two schools only focused on the alleged ‘inappropriate’ questioning and not challenged all the other failings?

          • William MacDougall

            They focus on the most obviously wrong failings in the inspection.

          • exSecondaryModernTeacher

            So the schools don’t consider financial mismanagement to be ‘obviously wrong’? Or lax recruitment practices? Or poor behaviour by students?

          • William MacDougall

            They rightly think inappropriate sexual questioning of ten year olds is the most obviously wrong.

    • UnionJihack

      I never see Spectator ads on breitbart. Can they not afford the expense?

  • Peter Stroud

    Socialists will always attempt to control and micromanage state education. It is in their genes. Blair, with Lord Adonis, attempted to reform the system by introducing Academies, and now the Tories have carried on the reforms, and, have gone further and introduced Free Schools, giving more power to parents. But Labour, under Miliband, is lurching once again to the left – so academies are a heresy: which is to be expected. What was not expected, though it should have been seen coming, was the traitorous turn about of David Laws, that fiddler of expenses, proving, once again, that LibDems should never again to be trusted.

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    The write of the above obviously hasn’t read the National Audit Office report on capital funding for school places. It said the challenge during Labour’s tenure was the reduction of primary places because there was a national surplus. However, Labour recognised there were shortage ‘hotspots’ and allocated
    £400m a year from 2007/8 to 2010/11 to these areas, the NAO said.

    The NAO also criticised aspects of the free schools policy. The need for primary places was more acute but the majority of places in first- and second-wave free schools were in secondary schools.

    And have you considered that establishing new schools because of ‘demand’ rather than need can actually decrease choice particularly in the secondary sector? A second free secondary school could take children from an existing school which would mean it would have to reduce subject choice. This could result in two small secondary schools offering fewer options than one large ones.

  • Mr Arthur Cook

    As we know the new conversion academies have not improved standards but led to a £1bn overspend and scandals over “missing money”…….and Free Schools are costing a fortune and are only half full at a time of a massive school places shortage…is it a “good” revolution or a “bad” revolution?

  • tjamesjones

    “The Lib Dems are able to claim credit for stopping Gove only thanks to
    David Cameron’s regrettable decision, during the coalition negotiations
    in 2010, to allow the junior party the right of veto over important
    policies it did not like”

    this is silly – how else would a coalition work?