Status anxiety

Fighting dirty

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

Why is local politics so much dirtier than national politics? Is it because the players are fighting over relatively trivial matters, like Oxbridge dons competing for college posts? As Henry Kissinger said, ‘University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.’ Or is it because local politicians are less likely to be exposed to the disinfectant of publicity? Well, I intend to remedy that.

Last week, a Conservative councillor in Hounslow drew my attention to an election leaflet distributed by three prospective Labour councillors that contained the following misrepresentation under the headline ‘Chiswick School loses out to Free School’: ‘Chiswick School was on the list for Hounslow’s Building Schools for the Future money. The school spent a lot of time and effort on preparing plans for further improvement. That money has now been taken away by the West London Free School in Hammersmith for renovating and refurbishing their buildings.’

This is wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s true that one of the first things Michael Gove did in office was to cancel the BSF (Building Schools for the Future) programme and, as a result, many schools that were expecting to be rebuilt were disappointed.

But it was cancelled because it was a scandalous waste of money. By 2010, £8.65 billion had been spent on just 310 schools. That’s an average of £28 million per refurbishment. That’s 20 per cent higher than it costs to rebuild a school in Denmark, 25 per cent higher than in Sweden and 40 per cent higher than in Ireland. Had it not been cancelled, the total cost of the programme would have been £55 billion.

To claim that this money was, in effect, put to one side and then spent on free schools is nonsensical. For one thing, the total capital budget of the first 24 free schools, of which the West London Free School was one, was £120 million. That’s an average of £5 million per school, meaning the present government is able to set up five new schools for less than it cost the last government to refurbish a single existing school.

But the money the Department for Education hasn’t wasted as a result of cancelling the BSF programme wasn’t stored in a bank vault somewhere, as these three prospective councillors seem to think. Rather, it’s money that the government won’t have to borrow. It’s a saving, not a deposit. Therefore, by definition, it hasn’t been ‘spent’ on anything else.

Now, it’s possible that when Michael Gove went to George Osborne with his begging bowl during the 2010 public spending review, asking him to fund the building of 24 free schools, he got a favourable response because he’d shut down the BSF programme. But that’s not the same thing as Gove taking money from a fund intended for school refurbishment and spending it on free schools.

Even if that is the way it worked, which it isn’t, it’s idiotic to claim that money allocated to a local authority school in Hounslow was taken away and given to a free school in Hammersmith. What the prospective councillors are claiming is that when the BSF programme was cancelled, the money wasn’t merely set aside, it was divided up into tiny little pots with a label indicating which school it was due to be spent on and then, when Gove wanted to fund the West London Free School, he took the money out of the pot labelled ‘Chiswick School’, even though it’s several miles away and in a different borough.

It’s preposterous. My ten-year-old daughter has a better grasp of how the Department for Education allocates capital funding than these three would-be councillors.

Do they really think any of this? Not even Labour councillors are that ignorant, are they? They are hoping to persuade parents of children at Chiswick School to vote Labour. The message is: Nasty Mr Gove stole money from your children and gave it to a bunch of privileged, middle-class children in Hammersmith.

What’s unforgivable is that they clearly don’t care about the impact this sort of campaigning has on the local community. So what if their leaflet sets family against family and child against child? To them, that’s acceptable collateral damage.

The authors of this disgraceful leaflet were Crispin Flintoff, Nada Jarche and Mendora Ogbogbo. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • ari

    Unless you name the Labourites the disinfectant of publicity does not work!

    • exile on euro street

      Er…that would be Crispin Flintoff, Nada Jarche and Mendora Ogbogbo, as stated in the last paragraph.

  • crazylegscrane

    Interesting that the man who claimed the Battle of Britain was won exclusively by public-school pilots should critcise others’ factual inaccuracies.

    Problem is both BSF and free schools are inherently wasteful.

    BSF because it too often left headteachers and councils in the clutches of over-ambitious architects who were too concerned with making grand statements rather than building decent buildings for staff and pupils. The Labour party loved opening these fancy buildings too.

    Free schools are wasteful because in many (though I accept WLFS is not one) cases they inject a huge oversupply into the system. (Google Sekford schools). The theory being that market mechanisms will see all schools improve or the weak will close. Unfortunately if you have oversupply of schools, many will not be full – this will hamper their ability to provide a full curriculum and recruit staff. This will lead to the children in the schools having a poor educational experience, at a greater cost to the taxpayer.

    • rtj1211

      I’m afraid the blame for market imperfections resides solely on the Secretary of State, Michael Gove.

      I remember reading the criteria for Free Schools and it included ‘demand exceeding supply’. If schools were set up where there is no deficit in supply, it says that Gove broke his own criteria for funding and has, ergo, behaved unprofessionally and not in the public interest.

      The concept of Free Schools is not what should be shot down in that situation, it is the concept of the Secretary of State and his/her Permanent Secretary remaining in gainful employment.

      The concept of the Free School is a very good one, what is required is professional and ethical due diligence on applicants and appropriate scrutiny by the HOC select committee of the proposed listed of funded schools prior to funding contracts being signed. So long as the terms of reference of the Select Committee are limited to ensuring that the previously agreed Criteria for Funding have been satisfied, there will be no political grandstanding wasting the taxpayers’ money taking place.

      What would all our parasites in professional politics do if they actually served the public interest rather than spent their lives listening to the sound of their own voices????

    • samhol

      Not sure you understand the basics of markets. In order for genuine competition between suppliers, an over-supply is required. If there is no over-supply, consumers cannot move freely between providers.

      In an educational context, if all schools in an area have close to 100% occupancy, there is both very limited choice for parents (who simply try to get their children into any school) and very little incentive for schools to continually improve, given that they are more-or-less guaranteed survival, irrespective of their success or failure.

  • Ruth Cadbury

    With maths puzzles you’ve got to compare like with like. The reason the cost of substantially modernising schools such as Chiswick through BSF averaged more than Free Schools is because the former were full sized secondary schools. My understanding of free schools is they they are small schools, generally four form entry or less. No wonder the per school cost is less, but the per pupil cost of Free Schools is significantly higher than state schools.

    Cllr Ruth Cadbury
    Labour candidate for Brentford & Isleworth

    • samhol

      Sorry but my brother is contracted to build a new school in Derby. The original cost for the school under BSF was double the cost that it will now be built for. Even this budget has a great deal of contingency.

  • rtj1211

    I think Kissinger missed the point: University politics are so viscious because the stakeholders are so small-minded.

  • Chet Carter

    Your school? The Cummings & Young Free School/Academy chain coming your way soon. Where acquiring puffed up self importance will be an essential part of the curriculum.

  • Reginald Molehusband

    “The authors of this disgraceful leaflet were Crispin Flintoff, Nada
    Jarche and Mendora Ogbogbo. They should be ashamed of themselves”.

    You should be ashamed of yourself for losing three headteachers in as many years. How much money have you taken from state schools to feed your free schools?

  • gulberwick

    Whine, whine, whine. It seems all is not well at Toby’s school.