Responding to an Urgent Question
on Free Schools (Funding) this afternoon, Secretary of State Michael Gove deflected criticism of the free schools programme by blaming the Labour government. It was their fault for failing to address the shortfall in primary school places.
But the last Government did address the problem. It allocated £400m a year to shortage hotspots
from 2007/8 to 2010/11.
Although 87% of free school primary places addressed the need for extra places, only 19% of secondary free schools did so. Some, like Beccles Free School and Route 39, have been set up where there’s already a surplus.
Nevertheless, Gove hailed the free schools policy a success. He evaded the question about whether the Basic Needs Allocation fund had been raided to pay for free schools by, again, blaming Labour. It had told local authorities (LAs) to cut primary places, Gove said.
But until 2007/8 the problem had been an oversupply of primary places and LAs, as Gove should know if he’s up to speed with LA statutory responsibilities, are legally responsible for managing school place supply. It wasn’t a case of Labour telling LAs to cut places – it was LAs doing what the law says they must.
Gove used the recent Public Accounts Committee
(PAC) report to eulogise the free schools programme. He highlighted one of the report’s few positive comments – the DfE had opened schools quickly. However, he ignored the PAC’s concerns which included:
1Secondary free schools were opened where they weren’t needed;
2Programme costs (DfE estimate £1.1b by March 2014) were escalating;
3Auditing and monitoring of free school governance were ineffective;
4Areas with severe shortages were attracting no free school proposals.
Free schools were oversubscribed, said Gove. But oversubscription figures don’t necessarily reflect a school’s popularity
when every mention on parents’ application forms, whether first or last, is counted.
And then, the most contrived evasion technique so far, Gove - with a slight pause indicating he was about to make a joke - said the shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt had more contorted positions on free schools than in “Indian sex manuals I could name”.
Schools minister Liz Truss, sitting on Gove’s right, chuckled. The expression on the face of the MP on Gove’s left was deadpan (he actually looked as if he wasn’t listening). Hunt, arms folded, looked bewildered.
And by the time I’d stopped watching the debate, it still wasn’t clear whether free schools had benefitted from money diverted from Basic Needs. Perhaps the full account in Hansard will bring enlightenment.
CORRECTION 13 May 2014. The original headline read "Urgent Parliamentary question deflected by blaming, claiming and comparing: Hunt’s positions are like those in Indian sex manual, says Gove." This has been changed to make it clear Michael Gove was referring to more than one.