So, did Gove answer the question? Did £400m disappear from basic needs to fund free schools?

Janet Downs's picture
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The nearest Education Secretary Michael Gove came to giving a straight answer was when Graham Stuart, Conservative chair of the Education Committee, asked him if “anonymous whispers” about the alleged raid on basic need allocation were correct, or whether Gove was being truthful when he told the Committee the £12.5 billion allocated to basic need from 2010 to 2021 was top priority and if it couldn’t be funded then the free school programme would be reduced.

Gove said, “I absolutely confirm that the evidence shared with him was 100% correct.”

But that doesn’t answer the question: just because basic need was top priority doesn’t mean it still is. Priorities could have quietly shifted in favour of expenditure on free schools.

Andy Sawford tried to get Gove to focus but was unsuccessful. As well as the blaming, claiming and comparing I described yesterday, the 50 minutes were filled with self-congratulatory puff about successful free schools including hints about an unpublished Ofsted report (Derby Pride Academy), inflated Ofsted judgements (Stour Valley’s Good became Outstanding) and minimising Inadequate judgements (E-Act Hartsbrook was merely “underperforming”). In an attempt to divert attention from the latter, Gove said Downhills, taken over by Harris, was now flourishing. What he didn’t say, of course, was Downhills was already improving.

Free schools inspected so far were doing better than other schools inspected under the same regime, said Gove. But the number inspected is small and it’s misleading to make judgements by comparing such a minute sample with a much larger sample comprising thousands.

We’re spending much more than Labour on new places, repeated Gove. But Labour presided over a time when school rolls were falling. It was inevitable local authorities would reduce any surplus - they’re required to do so by law. Now demand is rising so it’s unsurprising the Government is spending more on providing extra places. And he didn’t mention that only 19% of secondary free schools helped address a shortfall.

Ex-schools minister Nick Gibb seemed unaware the debate was about free school funding. He asked about “progressive” education, whether Ofsted promoted the latter, and whether this prevented free schools from adopting methods found in successful independent schools. No doubt Gibb would cite Eton as a successful private school. He should know, therefore, Eton is embracing Slow Learning with its emphasis on group problem solving and enquiry-based education.

But this diversion gave Gove the chance to pour fulsome praise over Sir Michael Wilshaw’s head thereby wasting another few minutes.

Sir Edward Leigh said free schools were “hugely popular” with Conservative voters. But opinion polls don’t back this up. Opinium found 56% of Tory voters thought free schools were good. That’s a majority, yes, but it doesn’t demonstrate “huge” popularity. And You Gov found support among Tories was low: 38% were in favour while 37% were opposed and 25% were not sure.

After the debate, even the Telegraph admitted:

The Education Secretary never strictly answered the key charge – that he’d diverted £400m from primary schools to fill a “black hole” in the funding of free schools – but his imperturbable aplomb saw him through. His voice rose only to blame various current educational failings on the last Labour government. Indeed, he used the phrase “The responsibility lies with the last Labour government” so many times that I began to wonder whether the last Labour government was still in power.’

For “imperturbable aplomb” read “silver-tongued blagging”.

NOTES: The Hansard record of the debate can be downloaded here.
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