Ideology in politics is a good thing. Before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron told one interviewer that he didn’t really have any strong ideological views – which, if true (and maybe he was just saying so to appeal to the broadest swathe of people), shows why he has u-turned on so many policies and sounds unconvincing on, say, the environment. But when ideology is pursued with such single-mindedness as in Michael Gove’s free schools programme – at the expense of hundreds of millions of pounds and to the detriment of some children’s education – it is clearly dangerous.
I am in favour of free schools in principle. By that I mean I am in favour of free schools as a continuation of Tony Blair’s original academies programme – to give parents the choice of a decent local school, and to tackle inequality in education. Free schools should be created in areas where there is demand. If the Education Secretary’s programme had been developed along these lines, then I would be applauding. When we choose a primary school for our daughter next month, we will do so knowing that the six schools closest to our house (in south London) are hugely oversubscribed. A new primary school – academy or free – would be welcome in our neighbourhood, as in many across the country.
But as the National Audit Office concluded yesterday, free schools are costing twice as much as the Department for Education planned – and in addition are not always being built in the areas that need them. The whole programme has cost £1.1bn, but at least £241m of that has been spent on schools where there is “no forecast need for extra school places”. That is a lot of money, in the most difficult of economic times, targeted at the wrong place.
To cite the NAO’s report, 87 per cent of primary school places in free schools are in areas predicting high or severe need, but when it comes to secondary free school places, just 19 per cent are in areas of high demand. Value for money takes second place to the fervour of getting free schools opened. To quote the NAO: “To date, the primary factor in decision-making has been opening Schools at pace, rather than maximising value for money.”
The NAO’s chief priority, of course, is cost. But concerns about free schools go wider: allowing free schools to employ unqualified teachers risks the education of pupils who sit in their classrooms, undermines the teaching profession and, surely, endangers the credibility of the free schools programme itself, as illustrated by the Al-Madinah and Discovery schools. Building free schools in areas where there is little demand for places risks draining existing schools of support. There is already evidence of money being diverted away from good schools to new free school projects in the same local-authority area.
As with all ideologies, followers can assume an almost religious fervour. They refuse to countenance opposition, or to accept that they may be wrong. Anyone who dares question the free schools programme is attacked by Mr Gove’s advisers. The BBC’s education reporter, Hannah Richardson, was described yesterday as a “disgrace” by @toryeducation, the Twitter account to which the Education Secretary’s special adviser Dominic Cummings is believed to contribute, for simply reporting the NAO’s findings.
Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who is also the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, is slammed as a “hypocrite” by the same Twitter account for expressing concern about the NAO report. Hodge’s “hypocrisy” stems from her campaigning for a new school in her Barking constituency where there is demand for hundreds of places. All new schools have to be free schools or academies. Her campaign should not preclude her from criticising a programme that is costing the Government twice as much as it planned. It is one thing to be ideological, and Mr Gove is undoubtedly passionate about children’s education. But the free schools programme is an ideology that is out of control.
It’s been around the block – but Lego’s still going strong
Lego is top of children’s Christmas present lists this year, according to letters written to Father Christmas (and intercepted by the Royal Mail on their way to the North Pole). It is easy to see why it has remained popular since its invention in 1949 – it is the wonderful combination of simplicity and challenge that has endured.
The endless tie-ins with films – from Star Wars to the Lord of the Rings – show that everyone wants to be cast in Lego. The toymaker’s one failing is to create a pink range aimed at girls, called Lego Friends, whose characters seem obsessed with baking and hair salons. But after worldwide protests, even on this they are changing with the times: children can now help Emma “break wood” at a karate class or play with Stephanie at “soccer practice”. Yet nothing beats a simple box of hundreds of Lego bricks – and that will be under our tree this year.