Michael Gove’s free schools are a triumph – but can they keep up with the baby boom?
When Michael Gove first proposed ‘free schools’ four years ago, he could have been written off as another Tory daydreamer. The idea of creating an education market, with independent state schools competing for pupils, was considered by Keith Joseph in 1980, then dropped when the depth of his department’s hostility became clear. English schooling was controlled by bureaucrats and unions, and sporadic ministerial attempts to change that always ended in failure. So Gove’s friends and enemies concluded that, as Education Secretary, his radical reforms were doomed.
How wrong they were. This month 24 new ‘free schools’ will open, admitting about 10,000 pupils. Behind each school is a group of teachers acting on parental demand for something better. Gove is due to visit Woodpecker Hall, set up by Patricia Sowter, a successful headteacher in Enfield, east London. Frustrated at having to turn so many parents away from her old school, Ms Salter has set up a new one free from council control. She is the first of what Gove hopes will be a new breed of British education entrepreneurs.
Also this month, more than 1,000 Academies will open their doors — five times the number that existed last year. These too are independent schools operating in the state sector, which have used powers in Gove’s Academies Act to break free from their local councils. Last week one of the earliest groups of Acadamies, those run by Harris, released its latest GCSE results and for comparison, each school’s last results under town hall control. On average, the proportion of pupils with five or more good GCSEs had trebled. The Academy programme, set up by Labour and expanded by Gove, is becoming the most rapidly vindicated social policy in modern history.
All this would have been something to celebrate, had Britain’s birth rate remained in mild decline. But as Gove was hatching his policy, the millions who settled in Britain during the boom years were starting families. The national birth rate has soared, especially in London, where half of all children are now born to immigrant mothers. At first, this just meant crammed playgrounds. Now, schools face the greatest surge in demand for primary school places for a generation.
Across the country, school shortages are being counted. Bristol has said it needs an extra 479 primary school places, and Leeds 225. What the statistics do not show is what
happens to mothers who have been told there might not be a decent primary school place for their children. They develop an almost homicidal rage. Some 140,000 children will soon be denied their first choice of school. This figure is set to multiply, and may well create a lethal Mums’ Army who will keep their wrath warm for election night.
Under such pressure, Gove’s proposals suddenly look far less radical. It is an extraordinary feat to open 24 new schools in the space of 18 months; under the old system it would have taken five years. But to keep pace with the rise in pupil numbers, Gove would need to open 320 schools this year — and 420 next year. In an interview
Mothers told there might not be a decent primary place for their children develop an almost homicidal rage with The Spectator three years ago, Gove said he wanted to promise English parents that ‘in your neighbourhood, there will be a new school going out of its way to persuade you to send your children there’. This now seems a distant dream. Competition requires schools with a shortage of pupils, hungry for more.The more likely picture now is that the schools will be deluged as soon as they open, shepherding children into bulging classrooms of 30 and more.
Why so few new schools? Part of the answer is quality control. Gove originally envisaged taking a Swedish laissez-faire approach, granting a licence to almost any school which applies and leaving the market to judge if it was good enough. But he was put off by the experience of the Charter Schools in the US, where bad new schools came to threaten the whole project. So, of the 280 applications to open an English free school next year, 160 have been rejected and the rest asked to interview. Perhaps as few as 80 will be approved.
Such an approval process requires staff, and the Department for Education seems to need an awful lot of them. It took an extraordinary 200 civil servants to approve two dozen new schools, so the odds of approving hundreds each year look slim. Another bottleneck is the struggle to find a site for the new schools. Gove has written to his fellow Cabinet members, asking them to suggest government buildings that could be used. But new school groups still need planning permission from an often-hostile local authority.
Yet Sweden, the lodestar for the whole project, started off with a few dozen schools and ended up with several hundred. The new schools quickly organised themselves into chains and set up wherever demand was strongest. But they did so because most were companies, operating for a profit. This idea, taboo only two years ago, has become a live argument inside the Conservative high command. Gove is reluctant, believing he is fighting on enough fronts without being accused of privatising schools. New schools face many obstacles, he says, most of them bureaucratic. The profit motive would not change that.
But increasingly, some of those around David Cameron believe that the only way Gove can accelerate his plan is to bring in profit-seeking chains like International English Schools and Cognita. And if it creates a political stink, so be it. The need for new schools is too great — and the prospect of the angry Mums’ Army at the ballot box too fearsome. But Nick Clegg, a great supporter of schools reform so far, has been given the power of veto — and has made clear he will use it to stop profit-making schools. This is where the argument may end, for now.
Labour seems to have nothing to contribute. Ed Miliband has disowned the Blarite Academy reforms which are now flowering so spectacularly. His party instead looks on uncomprehendingly as teachers seize power from town halls and get to work. For David Cameron, the prize is not just the rejuvenation of English state schools. It is being able to claim that the Conservatives are now the natural party of education.
‘Look at him with his iDad.’
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the spectator | 3 September 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
p for Grabs’ shouted a notice at the ticket office at Sissinghurst. It was not easy to buy a ticket without signing the National Trust’s petition which the slogan advertised: ‘For decades our planning system has protected much loved places from harmful development. Now the government’s reforms turn this on its head, using it primarily as a tool to promote economic growth instead.’ Each signatory then declares: ‘I believe that the planning system should balance future prosperity with the needs of people and places — therefore I support the National Trust’s call on the government to stop and rethink its planning reforms.’ But one of the main ‘needs of people and places’ today is more housing. Why does the National Trust, which has saved so many good houses, endorse the pernicious English view that new houses have to be bad? Why does it not stop obstructing, and instead use its enormous skills and resources to build thousands of handsome houses for people of modest means, adding to our heritage as well as preserving it?
As the school year starts, the Eton College News and Events reports how the headmaster greeted new boys in 1942: ‘It is my job to induct you into Eton. I didn’t say “welcome” and I didn’t say “Good morning”, because many of you will find this one of the most distressing inductions you will ever undergo. You may have been big pots at your junior schools, but here you are nothing... You may have heard it said that you are here to be prepared for a life of distinction. Not a bit of it. You are here to be kept off the streets during your difficult years. So you will be made to work every hour God gives you. If you are dim, you will be helped over the hurdles. If you are clever, your potential will be assessed and you will be punished if you don’t fulfil it. Your spare time will be spent fagging for older boys, and if you don’t do what they tell you, or any of the staff tell you, you will be punished. But I wish you good luck. You are going to need it.’ I find it genuinely difficult to tell which is worse — the bleakness of this approach to schooling,
or the sentimentality of the modern ‘every child is special’ attitude. The old way gave an institutional excuse for unkindness. The new way is a guarantee of disappointment. My one overwhelming feeling is how happy I am that neither I, nor my children, will have to start school ever again.
I have recently had two contrasting experiences of television. After I wrote a column saying that the left’s analysis of capitalism was sounding dangerously plausible just now, I was invited to appear on BBC Newsnight. I almost always refuse to do this because the programme goes out after I am in bed, but the editor assigned to me, Mark Lobel, was very charming, and before I knew where I was, I had agreed to make a short film. This was exactly what I had wanted to avoid because it means that, instead of just walking into the studio, saying something, and walking out, one has to be filmed knocking on a door, travelling, eating lunch, or whatever. The idea is to impart visual interest to one’s mere words. It took all day to produce about five minutes of film. Mark and the cameraman were delightful, but it was a stupendous waste of time. A few weeks earlier, in California, I was interviewed for the Hoover Institution’s internet channel, Uncommon Knowledge, by its extremely well-informed presenter, Peter Robinson. All I had to do was sit in a studio for about an hour being asked intelligent questions about Margaret Thatcher. The channel then broadcast about 40 minutes of it, in five eight-minute bursts. It got straight to the point. Why this difference? The BBC, having near-monopoly power, uses its guests to do what it wants, and makes us conform to stupid orthodoxies like the idea that talk programmes need more than talk to sustain them. Channels like Uncommon
Knowledge, being small, and operating in a free market, realise their best policy is simply to let their guests say more or less what they want. As a viewer, let alone a performer, I prefer the latter approach. It never forgets that television is only a medium, and should therefore mediate, not dictate.
Violet Naylor-Leyland, the daughter of friends, was recently accosted in a west London street by a Chelsea pensioner driving in the direction of the A4 on a mobility scooter. Did she have a mobile phone? She did. Could she please ring the AA and tell them that his scooter was running out of batteries? She did. ‘Madam, whether he’s a member or not,’ said the AA, after some discussion, ‘we don’t have a breakdown service for mobility scooters.’ In that case, said the old man, please could Violet send for his nurse to come and fetch him. When she protested that she didn’t have her number, he suddenly produced two mobile phones, hitherto concealed, from the pockets of his uniform, and asked Violet to ring the number programmed in. Mr X’s nurse was surprised to hear he was ‘heading for Reading’. She was unable to sally out, and so asked if Violet could leave the scooter and bring Mr X back. Violet decided that the scooter should not be left alone, and so took Mr X and his scooter to her nearby flat to wait for her boyfriend to return and drive Mr X back to the Royal Hospital. Mr X sat on his scooter and he and Violet chatted. But her boyfriend did not show up, and she had a deadline to meet, so she got Mr X into a cab to Chelsea, and tried to compose her cover story for a New York online magazine perched on the scooter, until the boyfriend arrived to help move it. Four days later, a charming letter arrived from the Captain of Invalids, thanking Violet. Mr X, it said, ‘is 91 years old and became somewhat disoriented on his return from a shopping trip. The result of this incident has highlighted the fact that although Mr X has been independent until now, perhaps it is time he realised his limitations.’ All this coincided with the riots, and therefore seemed particularly touching.
the spectator | 3 September 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk