Free schools

I don’t want to get carried away – it is all too easy to admire someone’s goal and their tenacity while forgetting to evaluate them based on their results and in their historical context. At this point, it takes Govian willpower to say that his structural reforms to the education system have been a success – for three reasons.

Firstly, and rather obviously, we hardly know anything about the performance of children that have attended free schools, or those who have been taught under the Gove era. Ofsted reviews of free school suggest they are no better than others. What we know about the features of the best performing schools across the world (mostly teacher quality but also data-driven classrooms, high aspirations, longer hours, etc.) are only sporadically apparent in the first waves of free schools.

Secondly, the National Audit Office and others have raised serious concerns over the transparency of the selection process, free schools’ availability where they are most needed, and the looming trouble in the department’s capital budget. Collateral damage from a battle against an incalcitrant bureaucracy? Perhaps. When you blast a blob goo comes out. But one can not read these reports and celebrate success.

Thirdly, Mr Gove may have been the most radical reformer in the coalition but his changes should be seen in their proper context. Checking them against Thatcher’s legacy is important. So too is realising that they are a turbocharged version of the reforms began under the Blair government – free schools are academies. (Literally – they are academies under law.) I sense a tendency among some Conservatives to confuse how Mr Gove revolutionised the party’s views on education with him being the first and only person in the country to want to shake up the schools system.  

David Cameron is “a sphinx without a riddle”, who “bumbles from one shambles to another with no sense of purpose”. Nick Clegg is “a goner”. Ed Llewellyn, the prime minister’s chief of staff, is “a classic third-rate suck-up-kick-down sycophant presiding over a shambolic court”. Tell us what you really think, Dominic.

In an interview with the Times, Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove’s former special adviser provides piquant descriptions of people in and around No. 10, whom he says are blocking or slowing his ex-boss’s radical reforms to the English school system.

Mr Cummings is an intriguing character who wears his learning about as lightly as Cristiano Ronaldo wears Nike. But his views should be given a hearing and not only because he remains a vital influence on Mr Gove. Last year he published “Some Thoughts on Educational and Political Priorities”, a manifesto for what he calls an “Odyssean” education system. After a bumpy ride through cognitive science, complexity theory, genetics, mathematics and military strategy, and a detour into dystopian predictions, he arrives at something close to a conclusion: England’s schools must become much better if its children are to compete in the modern world. He says that this requires a savage attitude towards the structural bulwarks to reform.