Gove makes snide remarks about LSN founders because he's lost the argument...

Francis Gilbert's picture
Michael Gove has attacked LSN founders, Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, in The Evening Standard today because he knows he's lost the argument about free schools. He is clearly worried about the damage that his critics are inflicting upon him and this policy. Melissa's excellent new book, School Wars, contains the most sustained and cogent argument against this policy that we've read so far. The great thing about her book is that she is able to put the policy in its proper context; a considerable section of the book looks at English education policy since the Second War World. She shows how divisive the grammar school system was and how, when given a proper chance, comprehensives did amazing things for social mobility and raising the aspirations of all children. She then puts the free school policy in this context and powerfully illustrates that this is yet another education policy which is about social segregation rather than providing a great local school for all children. I'm sure the book and all the coverage it has received has rattled Gove. He tries to address its arguments in his short Standard article but the trouble is that he relies solely upon small anecdotes rather than the hard facts, cherry picking specific examples of free schools serving poor children.

But as many commentators have pointed out, ranging from Channel 4's Fact Check to Radio 4 Today's programme, the free school policy appears to be about giving taxpayer's money to wealthy parents, faith groups and private companies to segregate certain sections of children from the rest of the community, thereby draining resources from existing schools and lowering standards overall. Furthermore, the whole policy, though small, has been used to demoralise and demonise the rest of the state sector, except for some academies who have the ear of government. How many articles have we read by Toby Young et al on how terrible the state sector is? This is despite the fact that standards have gone up considerably in the last twenty years.

At least the previous administration, for all their faults, set up policies that aimed to help every child improve their performance. The National Literacy Strategies were flawed in many ways, but I've just attended the British Education Research Association's annual conference where Roger Beard, a very distinguished and painstakingly thorough academic at the Institute of Education, showed quite persuasively that this once dreaded policy did have a positive impact overall. His research is published in an important new book, The Great Literacy Debate, which argues powerfully for a refinement of this policy if standards are going to rise. This seems to make eminent sense; unlike the free school policy which is very expensive and only benefits less than 1% of the school population, a decent literacy strategy helps EVERY child improve. I had problems with it at the time because it was implemented rather ineffectually, but we now know what works; empowering teachers, giving them more time to train and collaborate, focusing upon the teaching and learning in the classroom, improving assessment. The free schools policy looks like it's going to cost billions of pounds and yet only "help" 20,000 children at most; that money would be much better spent on helping teachers teach in all schools.
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Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 07/09/2011 - 16:19

Mr Gove wrote in the article: "And by opening superb schools that bring smaller class sizes, longer hours and inspirational teaching, we force complacent local authorities to raise their game and improve all schools."

Apart from the insulting suggestion that only teachers in free schools are inspirational, has Mr Gove forgotten that his intention is to remove all schools from the influence of local authorities. How does he expect LAs to "raise their game" if they have no part in the running of schools?

Perhaps Mr Gove should praise LAs where results are improving. Like the City of Leicester, where schools have had their best ever GCSE results. There are no academies in the city but several Co-operative Trust schools. Leicester City Council debated academy conversion in June 2010 shortly after the Coalition came to power. They decided to reject this strategy and establish Trust schools instead. The DfE is now punishing the City of Leicester for not falling in with Mr Gove's plans. The Council has lost £900,000 in funding. This money is being diverted to fund academies, but the City of Leicester has none.

It appears, then, that if groups fall in line with Mr Gove's policies they will be rewarded with money and fullsome praise. Reject his ideas, however, and they will be punished by lack of funding.

O. Spencer's picture
Wed, 07/09/2011 - 18:03

Having just read the offending article I don't think it could be construed as an 'attack' on either Melissa Benn or Fiona Millar. Snide remarks certainly, but hardly a vicious personal attack.

There are numerous ad hominem attacks on this site.

I don't think it is disputed that the daughter of a famous Labour politician or the wife of one of the most powerful figures involved with the last government could be referred to as 'well connected media types from London's most privileged circles.' Does anyone realistically argue against this?

On BBC Breakfast the other day Francis you mentioned that the school you teach in offers Latin, and then offered the provision of Latin as evidence of "self-selection" at new free schools. Is it the case that Latin teaching in comprehensives is inclusive and would not result in parents being put off the school but would be very divisive and self-selecting if taught in a free school? It seemed that way to me..

I have read numerous articles by Toby Young about the shortcomings of current state provision, but also articles praising existing state schools.

Francis you state that 'At least the previous administration, for all their faults, set up policies that aimed to help every child improve their performance' but was it not the very Blairite policy of the previous government to introduce Academies, which are all free schools are save that now primary schools are also included?

For the nth time, social segregation in education is not limited to Academies or free schools, and there is no definitive proof that free schools will further entrench segregation in a way that comprehensives in exclusive catchment areas already do not. Many comprehensives are not socially inclusive but the common line we hear from defenders of comprehensives is that they are socially inclusive by nature and free schools will not be. The truth is a bit more complicated than that

Could you substantiate the claim that free schools will cost billions?

The capital costs of free schools will be significantly less than the old BSF projects. But the free schools aren't needed (says who?) so it must be a waste. Similarly, at the very heart of BSF is the idea that the private sector makes money from the provision of education with the state's money. That is in no way different to arguing that it is morally wrong for private providers to make money through future academies or free schools.

I have many problems with how local authorities who do not have academies are being treated, but this argument is a financial one, and should be looked at separately from the educational or social arguments around free schools. It should be perfectly possible to be in favour of some aspects while critiquing others.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 07/09/2011 - 18:37

O. Spencer, the key point is that the free schools policy's central problem is that it will lead to increased social segregation; I'm not sure that you, or many people, disagree with me there...

Mark Luscombe's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 05:43

Well I would not go as far as to say he has lost the argument but he has lost the plot. The whole thrust of the City Technology/Grant Maintained/Specialist Schools/ Academies/ Free Schools policy over the last 25 years has been to enable politicians to join in the denigration of state education whilst creating the illusion of doing something about our schools. The political game honed by Baker and developed by Labour was based on the fact that they fully understood that the illusion could only last as long as the status quo, Locally Maintained Schools remained in tact. It remained a bogey man, a Aunt Sally against which straw man arguments could be erected for their own political advancement. Baker set up a system whereby middle class parents could have the "choice" of divorcing their school from the wider community and Labour by being seen to offer an alternative to the norm where it was perceived to be needed. Yes it further fragmented the system and yes it never got dow to dealing with the core issues that impact on educational achievement but worked, politically, because it allowed them to look innovative, prepared to take on "vested interests" and on the side of choice and parents as consumers.

Now Gove has shot the fox. When all schools are academies, when Local authorities have withered on the vine and when there is no money for Free Schools to be set up in struggling and isolated communities then central government will have no one to carp against. With no national agreements on pay and working conditions the union bogey man will be laid to rest. Who are they going to blame? When OFSTED inevitably raises the bar yet again in order to further its own existence and inevitably Free/Aca/ GM/City techs are found to be "merely satisfactory" then who will they blame? How can "bog standard comprhensives "with their one size fits all" "all must have prizes" "ideology" be an Aunt sally when they have ceased to exist?

Gove has not lost the argument because the argument is the same one that has been raging since the publication of the Black Papers and I'm afraid he as too many weapons at his disposal, easy sound bites, cliches and a compliant press willing to feed built in prejudices, to be defeated. He's even found an ex teacher to write Telegraph blogs and appeal to the "red teachers under the bed" fraternity and there will always be someone ready to re-write 15 year old Melanie Phillips tracts and re-package them. But what he has lost is sight of the political purpose of the Baker et al agenda. He has carried that agenda to its ideological extreme and in so doing has unwittingly set the scene for what passes as debate on education to a higher level by shooting Tory/ New Labour foxes. In the next few years a John Patton figure will emerge to take the flak for what Gove has put in place. But in the meantime he will have been elevated up the political ladder, the unchallenged hero of the free market ideologues. Gove's a winner but his more thoughtful colleagues will not , in future thank him for it because he has taken a neat political trick and torn it up.

botzarelli's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 11:27

Has the case really been made that Free Schools will increase social segregation? It appears that there is room for legitimate debate on the point, for example in relation to the siting of the first 24 Free Schools

If the evidence is that LEA schools have managed to improve as substantially as most of the articles on here suggest at the same time as growth in alternative models of state provision (CTCs, Academies, etc) and growth in the private school sector, why then are Free Schools seen as such a mortal threat?

Perhaps those improvements have been despite these alternatives existing and growing. Or perhaps, they have been at least in part, caused by traditional state schools and LEAs responding to their pressures. Which is Gove's stated rationale.

As a governor of the state primary my son is due to start Reception class in later today in Leeds, it will be interesting to see how schooling develops here in comparison to neighbouring Bradford, which has 2 Free Schools opening. If the education available there improves more, particularly if standards rise in some of the "sink schools" in that city more than they are doing in equivalents in Leeds, or if there is no difference, it is hard to see that Free Schools are the evil they are painted on here.

If Leeds schools' performance outstrips that of Bradford (allowing for the economic factor of Leeds being a less deprived city than Bradford) it would be a different matter.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 11/01/2012 - 11:23

Alas the site of the school is no guarantee of social inclusion. A stunningly machiavellian example is the current consultation by Bristol Free School ( check out their website) to adjust their catchment area to include the affluent area ( they wanted to put the school in) and exclude 80% of the kids who live closest to their new school .

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 13:10

Botzarelli - the debate over the siting of the first 24 free schools is acknowledged on this site on another thread:

And the FactCheck blog updated its earlier comments on 5 September:

There has, as you say, been a changes in state provision. The Office for National Statistics, Social Trends 41, Education and Training (downloadable from ONS site) makes illuminating reading:

State-funded primary schools dropped from 22,156 in 2005/6 to 21,427 in 2009/10.
There was a total of 4,149 state-funded secondary schools (all types) :a reduction of 95 from 2005/6.
The number of specialist secondary schools rose from 2,381 to 2,857.
The number of comprehensive schools fell by 268*, but the number of selective schools remained constant at 233.
The number of schools classed as secondary modern actually rose from 115 in 2005/6 to 160 in 2009/10.
Eight City Technology Colleges disappeared* - only three remained in 2009/10.
The number of academies rose from 27 to 203.
A further category, entitled "Not applicable", fell from 434 to 394.

It is unclear from the above statistics how many of the schools were voluntary-aided faith schools, or Co-operative Trust Schools.

The vast majority of the above were local authority community schools, and achievement in these schools, as measured by key stage 2 Sats and GCSEs, has been rising (although OECD has warned that this rise is not reflected in PISA results which have remained static). What is galling is that the government ignores the rise in results in LA schools. Instead, it constantly praises academies, especially those run by academy chains, and says the only way to improve standards across the board is to establish free schools which don't even have to employ qualified teachers. The free schools are then held up as beacons for the rest. Mr Gove has done an excellent job of demoralising teachers in community schools.

I think rising standards have more to do with league tables than proximity to academies. Machin and Vernoit 2011 found that the early academies established from underperforming schools did raise their pupils' achievement, but this was accompanied by a rise in the quality of intake after conversion. They also found there had been a rise in attainment of schools near these academies but said it was too early to judge the "academy effect". In any case, it is unclear how the "academy effect" is supposed to work when all schools are academies.

*Although some of these technically closed, they could have reopened as academies.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 13:29

It is too early to evaluate the effect on social segregation of the free schools programme which should not be seen in isolation from the academy conversion policy. OECD in the Economic Survey UK 2011 said the effect of academies and free schools on fair access for disadvantaged children needed to be closely monitored (p 85).

This view was endorsed Machin and Vernoit (CentrePiece Autumn 2010) regarding academies: “Under Labour, academy school policy was aimed at combating disadvantage; under the coalition, it is likely to reinforce advantage.”

However, one free school, the Krishna Avanti Primary School in Leicester which serves an area where the average income is less than the national average, seems to be going out of its way to encourage cohesion. It is a Hindu school with a Christian head and its website says it wants to create a more inclusive community where different faiths can live in harmony. Half of the places will be offered based on the shortest distance from the school regardless of faith. The school stresses it is not ideological about free schools, but it was the only way by which the proposers could establish a Hindu school.

As I’ve said before, I don’t want any free school to fail because school failure damages children. However, I don’t want free school governors or the government to crow about how much better free schools will do things than community schools. Somehow, I don’t think the Krishna Avanti School will take part in such self-aggrandisement.

O. Spencer's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 17:00

If it's too early to evaluate the effect on social segregation why have so many regular contributors here and on left-leaning sites such as The Guardian/Comment is Free been so forthright and vitriolic in their pronouncements on the social consequences of free schools? How can they be sure?

Just look at Francis Gilbert's response to my comment above - he *knows* that free schools 'will lead to increased social segregation'. Because most of the contributors on this site are anti-academies and anti-free schools, such comments are never challenged. I would like them to be to maintain rigorous debate.

It's interesting to note the Machin/Vernoit research - yet only 25 Academies can so far be classed as "Coalition Academies" vs. 267 "Labour Academies". Of the 99 "academy status applicants", the % on FSM is much closer to the national average.

In any case, one isn't comparing apples with apples, as the Coalition policy applies to all schools whereas the Labour Academy programme was much more limited in scope.

Davis Lewis's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 11:05

Free schools, faith schools, wave one academies, wave two academies, middle schools, lower schools, upper schools, primary schools, high schools, 6th form colleges, independent schools, comprehensive schools. What a bloody mess? Then we say that we have an education system?

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