Education, education, education, or What Will Free Schools Cost?

DURING the 2010 General Election, I was fortunate enough to be Political editor of a daily newspaper. I put in a great deal of time and effort covering the campaign, but the rewards were massive: I got to meet and interview high-ranking politicians, past and present, including Edwina Currie, who told me that trying to get the Lib Dems to agree on anything was like ‘trying to herd bluebottles into a jam jar’ and Vince Cable, who accused the Conservatives of not having any real economic policies. Looking back, I guess I only wish that both statements were still true…

I genuinely enjoyed it. But in the course of the campaign, I was also able to interview all three party leaders. I interviewed David Cameron twice. The first time, he appeared to say that he would continue with every single ‘good’ policy of the Labour Party, including Building Schools for the Future, if his party was elected.

But back at the office I wondered: how can the Conservative Party possibly pledge to continue spending, if they were also determined to ‘pay off’ the nation’s debts? If, as they said, we were in the worst economic situation of any developed state, how could they deal with that at the same time as spending money to build schools? (of course, we weren’t, but that’s another story…)

So the second time I interviewed him, a week later, I offered him an ‘out’. What if, I asked, the financial situation was worse than he’d realised? Would he then have to consider dropping schemes such as BSF?

He actually tossed his head, and tutted. ‘Tchoh,’ he began. ‘I’ve already told you we support Building Schools for the Future.’

Now, I can understand that at this point (late April) Cameron had been campaigning hard for weeks. Not only that, it was fast becoming clear that the Tories were actually losing public support (luckily for them, neither the Labour Party nor the Lib Dems were able to take full advantage). So I can forgive his rudeness under pressure.

But the fact remains, the leader of the Opposition, now the UK’s Prime Minister, sat and lied to my face. This is bad enough, but my job meant I was then forced to return to the office and deliver that lie, on his behalf, to the readers of the newspaper for which I worked. I have had no public opportunity since then to apologise. But, genuinely, if you read that article and it altered your opinion of the Conservative Party one iota, I am truly sorry. I’ve shared the mitigating factors, but nonetheless, I apologise.

Because on July 5, seven weeks and five days after the coalition was formed, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced he was ending the Building Schools for the Future project.

I only mention it now, because while I am no longer Political editor of a daily newspaper (I went to Libya with a charity and am now enjoying the twin thrills of application form-filling and wondering when I’ll run out of cash), Michael Gove IS still Education Secretary, and in some people’s eyes has emerged as a possible front-runner in any future Conservative leadership challenge.

So, perhaps it’s worth taking a look at Michael Gove’s ‘achievements’ to date…

About a year ago, I was in conversation with a leading Lib Dem, to whom I explained that I thought Gove was a marionette puppet. Not unreasonably, the Lib Dem asked ‘Well then who do you think controls him?’ So I want to explain quickly that I don’t think he’s a metaphorical marionette, dancing, as it were, to the tune of a puppet master, I think he’s an actual marionette, which has somehow, Pinocchio-style, learned to speak and make a life for itself. And so do you. Admit it. Go here and tell me it isn’t true…

Anyway, it’s not the most important thing in the world, but remember, that man – or more accurately, that ‘man’ – currently controls your children’s education.

We’ll come back to BSF in a bit, because it ties in quite nicely with Mr Gove’s ‘alternative’, Free Schools, but first, here are some of the other proposals Mr Gove hopes will come to a school near you, soon…


Late last month, Michael Gove announced that he hoped to replace the current GCSE examinations system with a return to O-Levels.

The first students to take the new O-Levels would take the exams in 2016.

Inexplicably, this announcement led some political reporters to declare he was now seen in government circles as a ‘front runner’ to replace PM David Cameron as leader of his party – and, by the same token, as a possible Prime Minister of the UK.

Certainly, it was a bold statement by Mr Gove. But I might suggest that it was not so much a ‘policy’ statement, as an announcement that he has no new ideas at all, and instead simply intends to replace an actual policy, passed some 26 years ago, with another, which had been in place for many years before that.

Perhaps unthinking nostalgia is what wins the hearts and minds of the Conservative Party, but if all it takes to be considered a political innovator is to propose a quarter-of-a-century backwards step, it’s rather depressing.

Mr Gove’s argument is that GCSEs are ‘failing the nation’s youth’. That they are not teaching the right things, and are in fact too easy to pass, thus devaluing them as qualifications.

The problem with this as an argument is not so much that it’s unwinnable, but that it’s actually impossible to lose as well.

Because the thing is, no-one knows. I don’t know if GCSEs are easier than O-Levels, because I didn’t do O-Levels. Mr Gove doesn’t know if O-Levels are harder than GCSEs, because he didn’t do GCSEs.

The only way to make an unbiased, scientifically sound assessment of which is easier to pass, would be to make the same children follow both courses, at exactly the same time.

Now, there are some people (step forward The Daily Mail, a genuine leader in this, as in so many other fields of political debate), who attempt to ‘prove’ that GCSEs are easier by publishing a multiple choice question which its readers would find incredibly easy to answer.

The problem is, Mail readers are adults – or at least old enough to be regarded as such. It’s hardly remarkable that most of them can answer a question designed to test the knowledge of someone less than half their age. The fact someone aged 45 can answer a GCSE question has no more bearing on the standard or quality of modern education than does the fact that the same 45 year-old can read and pronounce correctly the word ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ and a four year-old cannot.

Should we, perhaps, criticise infant schools for teaching young people to read with such pathetically facile texts as ‘Spot Goes To Annoy The Neighbours By Digging A Hole Under Their Fence’? To be honest, I’m pretty unhappy nursery schools keep allowing their attendees to slack off with toy cars and Lego…

We’ve also got to remember that the past is always better than the present, to those who look back at it. It may be the case that some exceptionally gifted individuals could, at the age of 16, recite from memory Robert Browning’s A Lovers’ Quarrel translated into Latin, but I’m absolutely certain they’d be the exception in that. There is, I fear, a tendency to judge the academic systems of the past by their most gifted participents, and those of the present by the most average, at best, or the least gifted at worst.

Equally, the cultural environment in which most 16 year-olds have been brought up is different from that of 26 years ago – even more so than that of 56 or 106 years ago.

For example, I’d honestly like it if a child of mine came home able to translate poetry, from memory, into Latin. But I might be a little less delighted if it turned out they’d been taught that at the expense of knowing how to use a computer. And no-one left school at 16 in 1957 knowing how to operate computers. What may have been seen as vital knowledge – or indeed obvious – in the past is not guaranteed to remain so throughout human history.

The other favoured argument from those who claim GCSEs are ‘easy’ is that the grades achieved by young people prove it. ‘So many people are getting the top grades,’ they say. ‘Hardly anyone did when there were O-Levels. Therefore, O-Levels must be harder.’

Not only is this a spectacularly unfair argument, undermining the achievements of young people who have, after all, spent two years working to achieve these grades, it’s also almost completely illogical. In what other field would people claim so consistently and noisily that continued improvement means things are ‘easier’? (Actually, in sport, some people do, citing improved technology and equipment. But there is improved equipment in schools, too, and yet Usain Bolt’s achievements are not belittled in the way that every 16 year-old, every year, is made to feel ‘less’ than their forebears, despite spectacular performances in examinations. In athletics, it seems, improvements are welcomed).

Equally, it ignores the basic differences between O-Levels and GCSEs.

O-Levels, and their ‘sister’ examinations, the CSE, were abolished in 1986 (the first students sat the exams in 1988), by then Conservative Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph.

Remarkably, the NUT, hardly noted for its consistent support of either the Conservative Party or government announcements of changes to the education system, welcomed the move.

Then NUT general secretary Fred Jarvis said: This is one decision of Sir Keith’s which will be applauded throughout the teaching profession.’

In the context of 1980s UK politics, this was a remarkable moment. Teachers – particularly those in the NUT – had opposed virtually every measure the government had announced on education, often striking to make their point more strongly. And yet, when it came to the abolition of the O-Level, a Conservative Education Secretary won not just support, but (figurative) applause from teachers.

The reason was pretty simple. O-Levels and CSEs were agreed, by professionals, experts and government ministers, to be failing the nation’s young people.

There were two main reasons for this: First, the system was genuinely two-tier. That is, those youngsters considered academically capable enough took O-Level examinations, and if they passed gained an O-Level qualification. Those who were not considered as capable took CSEs.

As a result of this, employers and society in general looked on O-Levels as ‘better’ than CSEs, meaning a decision taken when a pupil was 12, 13, or 14 years old could close opportunities to them forever.

Not only that, reaching the top levels of achievement at CSE actually required the same level of knowledge required to gain an O-Level in the same subject, but regardless, those chosen to sit CSEs received a qualification regarded incorrectly as worth ‘less’ than an O-Level.

It’s true, of course, that GCSE pupils are also ‘streamed’. There are arguments to be had about whether and why this is a good idea (on the one hand, it enables teachers to allow more accomplished students to take on new, more complex topics within a subject, while not leaving some in the same class unable to benefit in lessons. On the other, it reduces the chances of some pupils to achieve a grade they are capable of reaching). But the major difference is that all students receive the same qualification at the end. So if, as is the case in some subjects, the ‘higher’ level paper enables you to achieve grades A*-G, and the lower grades B-G, and you get a B in either paper, you have a B grade at GCSE.

For all the imperfections in the system, you do at least have a situation in which people who demonstrate the same knowledge in their final examination receive the same grade in the same qualification.

And the last sentence hints at another ‘problem’ with O-Levels: grades were awarded ‘in competition’ rather than in terms of actual achievement in a subject. That is, only a set percentage of young people in any given school year could receive an A grade, another percentage a B, and so on.

This is important for three reasons. First, because it did not reward achievement as such (though of course achievement was a factor – you could not score one per cent in an exam and get an A), but was based on competition. So if your school year was of a low academic standard you actually stood more chance of getting an A than if you were part of a particularly gifted generation. By contrast, the GCSE system directly awards achievement: that is, if you score a certain mark, you get a particular grade, regardless of how many other people also get that mark.

It seems pretty sensible, really. If you view exams as a mark of accomplishment, and you reward someone a grade for their achievement, that grade should be a mark of what you know, which can be understood by anyone observing. A system in which achievement is marked with a grade which is achieved by comparison with other students immediately offers too little information. What standard was the examination year in question, and perhaps more to the point, would an employer even bother to find out, if faced with someone with all As at O-Level and another candidate with all Bs?

Secondly, if a system of examinations is set in order to ensure people achieve a certain level of education (in this case, Sir Keith Joseph said all students must achieve grades A-C in five subjects, including English and Maths) that can only sensibly be measured by a system in which grades correspond directly to marks, rather than one in which grades correspond both to marks and the marks achieved by other students, because year-on-year the latter system tells you less about actual levels reached by young people, and more about how each individual compares to others of exactly the same age.

Thirdly, relating to the argument of those who say GCSEs must be getting easier because more and more students are achieving high grades, compared to O-Levels in which roughly the same number achieved each grade each year, well the comparison is transparently false.

GCSEs relate to achievement – the grade given relates solely to what the student has shown they have learnt. This means it is possible for 100 per cent of students to get an A* in French, for example.

That doesn’t mean GCSEs are NOT getting easier, but to pretend you can compare a system like GCSEs with the O-Level system of rewarding grades in a competitive way, where it would never be possible for everyone to get the top grade, is simply to misunderstand the way the systems work.

Mr Gove did, however, offer one interesting point about GCSEs, and one with which it’s hard to disagree.

In the statement announcing the O-Level ‘policy’ to the House of Commons (only after it had been leaked to the ever-friendly Daily Mail, however…) He said: ‘We want to tackle the culture of competitive dumbing-down, by making sure that exam boards cannot compete with each other on the basis of how easy their exams are.

It seems Mr Gove fears that GCSEs have got easier because of the policy which allows separate exam boards to ‘compete for business’ with schools – each offering slightly different papers and marking services.

It’s undeniable that such a system, particularly in an era of ‘league tables’ of exam performance between schools, could tempt schools to opt for an ‘easier’ exam, and for exam boards, competing for business, to offer an ‘easier’ exam than their competitors.

I don’t know the extent to which this happens. But certainly, when the exam board competition was set up, teachers warned that this could be one result.

The thing is, that system is absolutely nothing to do with GCSEs themselves. It’s to do with the way in which the last Conservative government tried to introduce ‘more competition’ into the public education system.

Mr Gove has recognised this competition may be driving standards down, and should be congratulated for doing so. But all that needs to be done is to remove competition between exam boards, rather than throwing out an entire education system in favour of one which was consistently failing pupils 26 years ago.


I’m going to change the mood a little here, so I warn anyone in advance that if they don’t like the idea of someone being unkind to a marionette puppet (for example, this one), they should probably just skip to the next section, Free Schools, which will include exciting things about Building Schools for the Future, cash, creationism, and Conservative Party’s weird love of the USA.

Right, now they’ve gone, we’re on to bibles.

As far as I can see, there are three views it’s acceptable to hold on the bible. First, it’s the word of God, transcribed by humans, and as such every word must be treated as the only truth about the universe and how we should live in it. Second, it’s a series of (occasionally gruesome) fairy stories each of which contain guidance on how one should live, or third, it’s a book written by a seemingly pathologically paranoid and insecure desert tribe attempting to gloss over its own perceived inadequacies by claiming to be the chosen people of a being which is unlikely even to exist, let alone play favourites with one small section of the species it created.

Another time? Good.

But in the case of the King James Bible, there are three other factors to bear in mind: It’s beautifully written; it’s an excellent example of Early Modern English and it’s a great example of a sensitive and artistically handled translation.

It’s well worth young people learning about it and from it, even if not, perhaps, from all of the messages it contains.

So, Education Secretary Michael Gove clambered out of his little puppet box with a plan. To make sure schools had copies of the King James Bible.

At first glance, this looks like a lovely idea. Children across the country get to benefit from seeing and reading a genuine historical and cultural work of art.

Except Mr Gove didn’t order enough for every schoolchild in the country. He didn’t order enough for every classroom to have one copy. He didn’t even order enough so that every teacher could have a copy, maybe to read to youngsters in ‘quiet time’ between txtng lssns and Coke drinking, or whatever it is The Mail knows young people do at school these days.

In March this year, he gave one copy – that’s one copy – to each school.

Now, I don’t know whether Mr Gove thought headteachers were unaware of the existence of the bible. Or whether he wanted to help those headteachers bestow knowledge to their staff (‘I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this, Ms Harris. It’s called the bible. It’s really terribly good…’)

Perhaps he hoped teachers will use it as a ‘reward’ for good students: ‘Ptr. Gd msg. Rd Kg Jms Bbl as prz.’

In any case, it turns out that this has cost £370,000, though the bibles are at least being paid for by Conservative Party donors, rather than the taxpayer.

Finally, and interestingly, each bible contains the following message: ‘presented by the secretary of state for education’ on its spine. Its spine! Not in small letters on a frontispiece, like it would if you were just an average megalomaniac, handing out religious literature for no reason.

Mind you, Mr Gove convinced Conservative Party donors to use their money to pay for him to use one of the world’s widest-read religious books as a vanity project. Maybe he is a front-runner for next leader of the party…

Free Schools

Welcome back, anyone who left. Actually, I wasn’t too horrible to the marionette. Go back and check. A good time was had by all.

And so, we move to the final part of this overview of Michael Gove, who may be a marionette puppet (see what you think here) and his flagship education policy: Free Schools.

Now before we start, I guess it’s only fair to make something clear. After all, I’m criticising the ‘man’ in charge of Education, so I might as well lay my cards on the table.

I think the people of this country should, as taxpayers, pay for every single child in this country to receive a decent, free, education. Up to the age of 16 for all, and up to and including a first degree for anyone with the ability and inclination to do one.

It benefits those who cannot afford to send their children, or whose parents cannot afford to send them, to private or public school. Not just because it prepares them for the world of work (it does, but that should NEVER be considered the sole point of an education) but because it also means they will be able to do things which will bring them pleasure, such as reading books, writing, taking part in scientific, historical or cultural debates or projects – in short, because it helps them to live fulfilled, happy lives. As human beings, rather than as senseless automata.

It also benefits those who can afford to send their children to public or private schools, or whose parents can afford to send them, as it means they will be part of a well-educated society, whose members can help contribute to the wider economy, and, believe it or not, because they will be able to meet people with whom they’re able to have an informed conversation, regardless of social class or the amount of cash they happen to have lying about.

For the record, I think this education should include Mathematics, Science, History, Geography and three languages (one being English) from Primary school age. On the latter point, this CAN be done. In Italy, primary school-aged children learn three languages. In Tunisia, lessons are taught half the term in French and half the term in Arabic. I realise this is only two languages (though this is ALL lessons being taught in this way) but to be fair, one is French, with a Latin alphabet, and the other is written in Arabic script.

It should also include any other subjects children want to learn and/or show some aptitude for. Included in this, it must be recognised that some youngsters are less academically capable, or perhaps more to the point less inclined towards acadaemia than others. This is not a judgement call on intelligence, just a recognition that not everyone’s mind works in the same way. These youngsters should be able to learn trades if they wish to, including everything from cookery to carpentry. I will, if anyone cares, explain how the latter idea can be delivered at a later date.

I believe that the government, which is after all a handily-placed central body, and holds the purse-strings, should be able to set desired levels of achievement and certain laws on how teaching can happen. But these laws should extend only as far as general terms including teachers’ wages and an absolute, all-encompassing policy of non-violence towards children.

Further than that, I think teachers, and perhaps local groups should be able to say how they will use the cash given by the government and how they will teach these lessons. The former is important because local groups, so long as they are accountable directly to the public, should be better placed to say what is needed and how urgently, and the latter because it seems like madness for a government minister to say they know better how a teacher should teach an individual or class than the person who teaches them every day.

Anyway, you’ll remember that Mr Gove stood up on July 5 in the House of Commons and announced that Building Schools for the Future was ending (we’ll pass quickly over the fact that he wrongly announced several of these projects were ending midway through, and that others were continuing when in fact they were to be stopped, even though he was Education Secretary and this was the single most important thing happening for staff and pupils at schools up and down the country. Anyone can make one mistake of this kind. That’s ONE, Mr Osborne).

In the House, he accused Building Schools for the Future of being responsible for: massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy.’

In fairness, he had a point with the first three accusations. BSF was £10bn over budget (£55bn, rather than the original estimate of £45bn), by its second year (2006) work had started in only five of 72 local authorities who’d already signed up, and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, in its review of 124 schools rebuilt, found that 52 had ‘poor’ quality of building and design, with a further 16 rated ‘mediocre’.

On the other hand, it’s fair to point out that BSF was a spectacularly ambitious project. Announced by Tony Blair in 2004, its aim was to rebuild 1,750 secondary schools, structurally repair another 1,225 and refurbish the rest – including installing new ICT equipment – of the 525 remaining schools.

As with many New Labour schemes, however, it did have complications and problems built in. The main one came down to the fact that the government was not paying up front for the project, preferring instead to invite private firms to pay for the work, and then repaying them in instalments over many years.

It’s easy to see why this was attractive to New Labour – it was, in effect, a ‘buy now pay later’ deal. And it did deliver new schools and refurbish old ones. But repayment levels were always likely to be reset so the cost was always likely to be higher than early estimates. And the government had little control over the building process itself, as it was ‘project commissioner’ rather than ‘project leader’.

In terms of bureaucracy, it’s worth mentioning that a great deal of what Mr Gove criticised was the hiring of consultants as go-betweens for schools and local authorities, which had previously had little or no experience in dealing with architects.

The problem here was that, as Margaret Thatcher correctly claimed: ‘We won the argument… We convinced our opponents we were right.

Labour had been convinced that the market could – indeed should – be used in all activities which cost money, as such involvement should, in theory, save the taxpayer money and ensure that business expertise was used in all large infrastructure projects. What made the situation impossible was that Labour had only been half convinced by Conservative views: it believed in the market, but it also believed (rightly, in my view) that the government had a responsibility to its citizens to deliver state-level improvements, rather than relying on piecemeal ‘make do and mend’ schemes.

The results were as one might expect: improvements WERE made – BSF was the largest single school building and refurbishment project ever embarked upon in the UK – but by using business expertise, costs were higher than could otherwise have been the case. The use of consultants was necessary, if one accepted that business ‘knew best’. But the result was a tendency for ‘negotiations’ between schools and local authorities on the one hand, and consultants and architects on the other, to overrun, both in terms of cash and time.

So, there were problems with BSF, though whether these came from the idea of building new schools for UK children (which as we have seen the Conservative Party itself was in the last Election campaign at pains to say it supported) or the involvement of the private sector in what were massive public services contracts is at the very least a topic for more research.

Mr Gove announced his own ‘flagship policy’ on schools in 2010.

He said the UK would become the third developed state in the world to operate ‘Free Schools’ – new educational establishments set up by groups outside of the state sector (he named parents, teachers, charities and businesses as groups which could set up and run such schools, though as we shall see, religious groups have also taken part in the scheme).

The schools were designed to receive government funding, not from the local education authority as in the state school sector, but directly from the Department of Education. They can also receive ‘top-up’ cash from outside sources, including businesses (in this, they are similar to the Academies set up by the last Labour government, though academies have a 10 per cent ‘cap’ limiting the amount of outside funding they can receive).

In exchange, they are freed from having to teach the national curriculum, and can set their own hours of opening, holidays and teachers’ pay rates.

There are some advantages to such a scheme. First of all, the idea that parents can take an active role in their children’s education is, at a first glance, a measure of empowerment for those closely affected by the way in which schools operate. Secondly, it’s hard to argue that there is a ‘best’ period of the day in which children should learn (within reason: few to no people would seriously argue that youngsters learn trigonometry best at 4am), so why should such freedom not be exercised by schools, who after all provide education directly, every day, rather than being imposed upon by a government which does not?

But there are problems.

As with other ‘new’ policies of Mr Gove, the idea was not ‘new’. It was already in place in the USA and in Sweden.

In the USA, particularly in New York, the system is agreed to have had a positive affect: exam results have improved, and perhaps crucially, young people at the schools have been found to enjoy attending more than in non-Free Schools. But.

At this point, I think it’s worth making a quick point. I am genuinely bewildered by the way in which many politicians – most of them, but not all, members of the Conservative Party – insist on holding the USA as a state model to which we should aspire here.

I can understand that it saves money for governments, as a low-tax, low-interference system of governance means the government should spend little money on state infrastructure and services (we will gloss over what it does spend money on instead).

But the USA’s social systems are rated among the lowest in the developed world. Its health service is rated as worse on EVERY criterion, including cost and efficiency, than the NHS. By its own Census Bureau’s reckoning, 46.2m US citizens are living in poverty – 15.1 per cent of its population. In cash terms, this means that 15.1 per cent of the national population exists on £14,674.99 per year – for a family of four. Arguably, the ‘US poverty threshold’ has been set too low.

I apologise for quoting Bill Hicks, but: ‘When you find yourself jumping over the tenth guy lying in the street who, I don’t know, might be dead, doesn’t it ever occur to you the system isn’t working?

Now, I know a few Americans. They are charming, intelligent and in one or two cases spectacularly talented people. But I am sorry to have to say that American education is not exactly globally famous for its consistent high standards.

This may be unfair, but bear with me. For a start, the nation elected, as its president, a pretend cowboy. Twice. Then it elected his quieter, less charismatic pal, who had exactly the same policies. When it elected a relatively intelligent man, it attempted to have him impeached for having had sex with someone who wasn’t his wife (by contrast, John Major, former UK Prime Minister, was found to have had extra-marital sex while PM. He is now a Lord. I’m not sure what this says about our respective nations). And then it elected Dubya. Twice. Though I suppose it’s possible this was some kind of ‘equal opportunities for halfwits’ scheme. In which case, well done.

Genuinely, some of the world’s brightest and best-educated people have come from the USA. But it’s hardly the catch-all education system to which the rest of the world should turn in times of need. It’s a shame, because it’s hardly representative, but this is the kind of thing the USA system needs to address before we throw our system out of the window.

I suppose what I’m saying is that while Free Schools DO appear to have improved education in the United States, the starting-point was lower than it is here. Do we need a similar system when what we have in place is already at a higher standard?

Comparison with Sweden is perhaps a better starting-point for the UK. We generally finish below the Scandinavian state in studies on quality of life. They do appear to be doing something that we are not. Could it be its Free Schools?

In Sweden, the first Free Schools opened in 1990. There, too, they offered more direct participation from the community, new equipment and innovative teaching methods.

The problem is that on Wednesday September 7 2011, SNS, a highly-regarded – largely right-wing – business-funded Swedish political thinktank issued a report which claimed Free Schools, with its introduction of private operators into state education, had increased educational segregation, and was ‘unlikely’ to have increased educational standards.

It said that students who entered ‘gymnasium’ (sixth form) from Free Schools went on to achieve lower grades on average over the next three years than those who entered from municipal state schools.

In 2009, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s programme for student assessment showed Swedish students had dropped to 19th place out of 57 states for literacy, 24th in Maths and 28th in Science, from 9th, 17th and 16th respectively in the previous studies on each subject.

Dr Jonas Vlachos, associate professor of economics at Stockholm University, wrote the SNS report.

He said: ‘The empirical evidence showing that competition is good is not really credible, because they can’t distinguish between grade inflation and real gains.’

So, in a state where standards were high, the evidence for Free Schools improving education seems, at best, shaky.

In fairness to Mr Gove, there are other reasons why Free Schools may seem to be a good option.

One is that it seems the programme CAN deliver new schools, at a lower cost than BSF.

But the problem with this is twofold. First, the scheme doesn’t necessarily deliver ‘new schools’ in the sense that BSF did. That is, BSF aimed to build new schools to replace crumbling old ones, without necessarily adding to the overall number of schools. Its aim was to improve the learning environment for young people.

Free Schools CAN be entirely new builds, of course. But in most cases (there were 24 Free Schools opened in 2011, 53 will open this Autumn, and earlier this week Mr Gove approved 102 more to open in 2013) they are opening in already existing buildings, such as disused office buildings or closed libraries (the Conservative Party has helpfully increased the numbers of the latter by cutting local authority funding). Free Schools are increasing the number of schools in the UK, rather than focussing on improving those which already exist.

And do we need extra schools? The evidence appears to suggest we don’t. Most of the anecdotal evidence (for example, newspaper stories about parents being unable to get their youngsters into a particular school) seem to focus more on the divergent standards of schools in certain areas. They look at the fact that a parent CAN get their child into a secondary school near their home, but it is not the one they want their child to go to.

If this is the case, a more effective policy may well be to focus on improving standards at schools which are achieving less than others, rather than adding extra schools.

Factor in the fact that the UK’s under-18 population is actually falling, and although there MAY be certain city centre areas which would benefit from an extra school, just opening extra schools everywhere seems to miss the point of what new schools are needed for: not to increase PLACES, but to increase standards.

As an example, on June 28 this year, it was revealed that the Beccles Free School, which will open on the Suffolk border with Norfolk in September, had received just 37 applications to join. Is it in fact a waste of money to open new schools where there is clearly not a shortage of school spaces?

The second problem with the ‘money-saving’ argument is the WAY the money is saved. Much of the funding comes from private enterprise (including, it must be said, many companies which exist purely for the purpose of setting up such schools – if this is not similar to the expensive ‘needless bureaucracy’ which Mr Gove rightly attributed to BSF, it certainly looks like it).

In some cases, it also comes from religious groups, which hold what can be charitably described as ‘unusual’ views on what should be taught, and how.

Of the 102 schools Mr Gove earlier this week accepted should open in 2013, three are to be run by groups which believe in creationism – that despite all the scientific evidence accepted across the globe, God created the heavens, the Earth, and that he also created humans and every animal of the earth, sea and sky.

This is not the right place for a conversation about whether Darwinism is correct (though it is. And you can go here for an explanation of the term ‘theory’ which seems to me to be the only honest misunderstanding attached to evolution).

In Sunderland, Grindon Hall, currently a private school which will open as a Free School next year, says on its website it will ‘present creationism as science’ (the wording here is particularly important, as we shall see) and will ‘affirm the position that Christians believe God’s creation of the world is not just a theory, but a fact’ (in fairness, some of them DO believe this…).

Sevenoaks Christian School, approved to open in Kent, says it will teach in RE that ‘God made the world’.

The Exemplar-Newark Business Academy, in Nottinghamshire, will open in 2013, too. It is run by a group which had a previous attempt to open a school turned down because it said it would teach creationism as fact. It now says the school will teach creationism in RE.

Now there has been a great deal of criticism of Mr Gove’s decision to allow these schools to open, on the grounds that they intend to teach that fact is wrong and religious belief is truth. In the Education Secretary’s defence, it MUST be noted that it is illegal to teach creationism in Science lessons in the UK.

But to what extent is this a defence against bad teaching practice? Would you, as a parent, be happy if a school said it was to employ a wild tiger which could do Maths with the sentence ‘It’ll be fine as long as no-one loosens its chains’?

Equally, at what age, and to what extent, do children regard what they are taught in Science as truth and in other lessons as theory?

Chris Hay, Grindon School’s principal spoke to the Guardian about his school’s approach, and rightly pointed out that there is a ‘proper distinction’ between ‘what is taught in a Science lesson and what might be taught in assembly.’

So what is to stop a school such as Grindon from ‘teaching’ in Mr Hay’s words, creationism in assembly – and asking a Science teacher to do that ‘teaching’? Equally, are we to believe that children at any school would – or should – be taught to treat what their Science teacher tells them in a lesson as fact and what the school’s headteacher tells them in assembly as conjecture?

It is not just creationism. The Christian Family Schools Ltd, which runs Bethany School, Sheffield, an independent school, makes interesting use of the Book of Proverbs on its website: Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod, and deliver his soul from hell.’

It later adds the free-thinking declaration: ‘Corporal discipline is not child abuse; withholding it is!’

Christian Family Schools Ltd hopes to open a Free School for 1,000 students in Sheffield. So far, its applications have been unsuccessful.

Again, it has to be said that I do not believe Mr Gove wishes children to be beaten at school. He turned down the CFS application, and in any case corporal punishment in schools is illegal. It’s just that the view that the people hoping to open these schools are kind-hearted philanthropists is not always entirely true, and these groups are not answerable to anyone – it’s their money and they can do what they want with it. At least the government can be removed, these firms cannot.

The final large potential problem with Free Schools is their effect not only on the youngsters who attend them, but on those who go to other schools.

Mr Gove has pledged all Free Schools will receive the same funding per pupil as all state schools, which is reasonable in as far as it goes (though it does raise the question that if there are 179 new schools in the country and they receive exactly the same level of funding as the 3,500 state secondary schools, how can the DoE not exceed its planned spending targets for 2010-15?).

But the schools are allowed to take money from other sources, which state schools are not. And they have independent control over how much they pay teachers, which state schools do not.

Given that – with very few exceptions – these schools are not being opened because of a shortage of school places in their local area, it appears they must, therefore, be competing with other local schools for pupils.

One very simple way to do so would be to use higher wages for teachers to attract the ‘cream of the crop’ from other schools. For a Free School, this may enable standards to improve and the school to present itself as ‘better’ than the others in its area.

The problem is what happens to the young people who can’t get a place at a Free School? Given that in September 2013, there will be one Free School for every 19 state secondaries, that means that 95 per cent of children will be forced to attend a ‘worse’ school than the ‘best’ in the area. That is, by definition, a two-tier education system. Not only that, it is a two-tier education system which excludes a far higher percentage of the nation’s young people from the ‘top tier’ than any school system to have been in place since universal free education was introduced in the UK.

It’s easy to see the downside of this. From a purely ‘pragmatic’ (one could say cynical…) viewpoint, it is impossible for all of even just the very brightest children in an area to all get into its ‘best’ school. How much damage will it do to society if we are to consign generations of the brightest children to ‘substandard’ schools (and remember: they are ONLY substandard in this case because of the existence of Free Schools).

From a more human perspective, under what circumstances is it acceptable to set up a system which denies 95 per cent of the nation’s young people the opportunity to thrive?

The traditional Conservative argument comes into play – a little – here. The Party argues that rising standards at one school will force others to ‘raise their game’. That in order to compete, the state schools will have to raise standards.

We saw in the last post that roughly a quarter of a century on, the first series of privatisations of public services have failed, in every case, to improve standards. The argument that a second wave of ‘introducing competition’ should do so is built on sand at best.

But equally, well, how? The system has not been set up to increase teacher numbers, or standards of teacher training. It has not been set up to ‘allow’ state schools to compete with Free Schools. It has been developed to offer Free Schools the chance to take more money than state schools, and have fewer restrictions than those state schools.

Even if competition DID drive up standards (and it does not), state schools have the rate they are allowed to pay teachers set by law. Free Schools do not. The system has been developed to give them more money, and the chance to spend that to poach staff from other schools, using a financial bait with which the others cannot hope to compete.

It is possible, of course, that in 20 years’ time (at the rate such schools are currently opening), ALL schools will be Free Schools. But even if we set aside the very real worries about what Free Schools are actually capable of doing, in an ideal situation that still means we will have wasted 95 per cent of the potential of an entire generation of children. It’s virtually impossible the experiment will be worth such a cost.

The Free Schools scheme offers at least as much potential of driving DOWN educational standards within the Free Schools themselves as it does of driving them up. It CAN save money in building new schools compared to BSF (not really a massive achievement, but I suppose it’s something…), but not in the way the system currently operates.

It introduces new schools where the money would be better spent improving existing ones. It offers exciting new potential for your children to be taught superstition over science, and it is very likely to reduce educational standards for 95 per cent of children wherever a Free School opens, in the short-to-medium-term, and quite possibly in the long term.

Building Schools for the Future was a good policy, disastrously enacted. Free Schools is not a good policy, even though it may have been developed with the best of intentions.

So what can we do instead?

An Alternative

First, we have to accept that a universal, catch-all education system is, by its very nature, a good thing. All children should have the same opportunities to learn and achieve and should receive the same qualifications as one another, based on their effort and knowledge.

The government is very well placed to deliver the overall structure of such a system. It is elected, and accountable to the people. It can be replaced if it fails to deliver. Successive governments have made mistakes, but that does not mean the structure must be pulled down and entirely rebuilt. It is the correct place to set rules on what should be taught (with flexibility outside of core subjects, as outlined above) and rules on things like corporal punishment and pay rates for teachers (again, the latter should be agreed on a national basis to stop Regional Pay, which will pull teachers away from ‘low pay’ areas and towards places they can earn more. As such, no government would be allowed to introduce regional pay for teachers).

Outside of these areas, elected local bodies, which can and should include people with teaching experience, and parents, should be able to control finance for things like school building and certain school projects. These bodies would receive an amount of money each year, based on the number of pupils in their region and teachers required to teach them (the latter would be decided by the local groups, though negotiation between them and government would be used to finalise a figure). This amount would be agreed at the start of each new government’s term in power, and would increase with inflation year-on-year. Governments would not be allowed to give education less than this pre-agreed amount without prior agreement from all local groups.

Money for extra projects, including rebuilding, maintenance and refurbishment, would be negotiated between local groups and the government. Any extra money which is required can be provided by outside investment, but on the clear understanding that such money would be repaid at the rate it was borrowed, that the private donor would play no part in the negotiations over the work the money is used for (though it must be used for what the donor is handing it over for) and, most importantly, that the donor plays no part in influencing what is taught in a school, or how it is taught.

Teachers would decide how to teach their subjects – provided this is within the law on matters such as corporal punishment. They are in the classroom and know more about how their pupils respond than a government minister, or a local group, even one containing parents. They would, however, be judged on achievements year-on-year. This may be uncomfortable – and factors such as the area in which the school operates, and hardships suffered outside of school by pupils MUST be taken into account – but it is hard to understand how a government, which should have the interests of its people at heart, can judge how well or badly the system is performing without such information being analysed on a regular basis.

Mr Gove may well be a marionette (you can check here to make your mind up.) And he may well be a front-runner to take over his Party.

He also won’t read this. But he could deliver all of these things, and the system would work. At the very least, it doesn’t run the risk of wasting an entire generation of talent and intelligence…