Michael Gove's unruly behaviour

Most primary free schools are in areas that need places, but expansion should not be at the expense of other schools
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The Independent Online

The coalition parties are playing politics with children's future. Allies of David Laws, the Liberal Democrat Education minister, accuse Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, of "zealotry"; the Conservatives have responded in kind.

As we report today, the Lib Dems say that Mr Gove has commandeered £400m from other parts of the education budget to pay for his "ideological" free schools, which are costing more than expected. The Conservatives say that their so-called partners are engaging in "differentiation" purely to try to mobilise what is left of their core vote for the European Parliament and local elections next week.

Let us try to disentangle the games-playing from the policy. There is certainly a difference of emphasis on schools reform between Mr Gove and Mr Laws, although it is much less than the Lib Dems pretend. Mr Laws was an advocate of schools autonomy and took the side of Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis when the Labour government was divided over academies.

Now the debate has moved on. Academies have become the accepted and most prevalent type of state secondary school in England, while the Government has divided over the next phase: free schools.

Free schools are simply academies that do not replace an existing school. They are an intensification of the academies programme, but as yet provide for only a small minority of pupils. The Independent on Sunday supports free schools in principle, because we believe in as many different kinds of school as possible, offering the best chance that every child can find the kind of teaching that allows them to make the best of their talents.

The spread of the academy model to nearly every secondary school in England is more important than a few free schools, however, as is the continuing need to improve school leadership and teacher standards.

There are problems with the free schools programme, as the Public Accounts Committee, led by Margaret Hodge, reported last week. Control of costs does seem inconsistent, and there are questions about fairness of funding between free schools, academies and other schools, the last of which may feel they are treated as third class. Most primary free schools are in areas where there is demand for new school places, and so some expansion of the free-schools budget is justified, but this should not be at the expense of other schools.

None of this, however, justifies the games played by coalition politicians as they engage in conscious uncoupling. Mr Gove, although unusually courteous in his personal dealings, cannot resist the temptation to provoke those who disagree with him and to regard that disagreement as a vindication. By describing any opposition to his ideas as a manifestation of "The Blob", his phrase for adherents of orthodoxy, he makes it harder to build support for his changes.

Equally, the Lib Dems are guilty of point-scoring. Nick Clegg's plan for free school meals for all five- to seven-year-olds was dreamt up to give him something to announce at last year's party conference. It is a worthy idea but expensive, and somewhat weakens the force of Mr Laws's complaint that Mr Gove is taking money from the mainstream schools budget. Mr Laws is, in any case, engaged in low politics. His party's private polling recently suggested that one of the best ways of persuading Lib-Dem-leaning voters was to attack Mr Gove.

This is a poor advertisement for coalition politics. Instead of trying to resolve a minor difference about the fair allocation of funding for new school places, Mr Gove and Mr Laws have put pupils' interest second to trying to impress their own supporters.