Michael Gove’s determination to allow free schools to set up with minimum bureaucracy, and his particular enthusiasm to see a “state school Eton” open in the South Downs, is winning him as many enemies in parts of the countryside as it is among the teaching profession. In Stedham, the Education Secretary’s championing of plans to relocate 650 pupils from inner London to this West Sussex village has caused fury, in turn prompting claims that the villagers’ concerns, centring on noise, traffic and planning issues, are a cover for racist motives.
In this incendiary atmosphere of accusation and counter-accusation, it is essential for Mr Gove’s department to move forward with more than just conviction. It needs to demonstrate a grip on process, which is why criticisms of the department’s handling of the finances of this scheme, contained in a letter from the National Audit Office, will come as a blow.
As we reveal today, the head of the office, Amyas Morse, has told the Department of Education that it “lacks sufficiently robust estimates of the financial risk of the project”. In short, it hasn’t done its sums and may have grossly underestimated the cost. While Mr Gove’s officials have already promised £17.3m, on the assumption that the bill will not exceed £22m, there are suggestions now that the cost could be more than double that, at £46m.
This newspaper supports free schools, as we did New Labour’s academies, convinced that a one-size-fits-all educational system no longer meets the needs of society, if it ever did. The plan to open a school for some of the most deprived children in the capital in the heart of the countryside is nothing if not bold, evidence of the kind of ambitious thinking on schools that we need more of. But this is precisely why it is important to get the sums right and make it clear that these schools are financially viable. As it is, Mr Gove may have given the opponents of free schools and of change in general some fresh ammunition.