The ‘ideologically obsessed zealot’ who ‘secretly’ raided £400m meant for school places: Gove owes us answers

Labour has failed to sufficiently press Michael Gove over his raid of the basic need budget.

Labour has failed to sufficiently press Michael Gove over his raid of the basic need budget, writes Annie Powell

“Is that it?!” shouted coalition MPs at Tristram Hunt on Monday when he finished his rather short urgent question about Michael Gove’s appropriation of £400m from the basic need budget to prop up his flagging free school programme.

Now there’s nothing to say that an urgent question in the Commons should be long. But on the issue of Gove’s plundering of funds meant for additional school places when there is a national school places crisis, there are far more questions than simply “Did it happen?” And, if we can infer anything from their jeering, it would seem that Gove’s own colleagues think so too.

Gove studiously ignored Hunt’s request to confirm the ‘reallocation’ of £400m from the basic needs programme, and had the following to say when asked to give a clear answer:

“Andy Sawford (Lab): Will the Secretary of State confirm that he reallocated £400 million from the targeted basic need programme to fill a black hole in the free schools programme? It is a simple question. He did not answer my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt). Yes or no?

Michael Gove: We are actually spending more on basic need and on free schools as a result of the wise decisions that we have taken….”

So that will be a yes then, although we could already be pretty certain it was true because Lib Dems had confirmed the veracity of a leak to the Guardian in which a “senior government source” told the newspaper that Gove “had secretly taken the money from the Basic Need fund for local authorities last December, in the face of stiff opposition from the Lib Dem schools minister David Laws”.

This source “from the heart of government” said that Gove was an ideologically obsessed zealot who had “essentially no spending restrictions at all” on free schools:

“The free schools budget is out of control and the secretary of state would rather sink another £800m into the black hole, rather than rein in spending…Everybody knows there’s real pressure on school places at the moment and the secretary of state knows better than most. It is nothing short of lunacy to slash the amount of money available for new school places to lavish on free schools.” 

According to this coalition insider, the £400m would fund 30,000 new school places. Free schools, by contrast, are often being established in areas that do not need extra places.

The seriousness of Gove’s actions was not properly conveyed in Monday’s Parliamentary debate. £400m was allocated for new school places because they are desperately needed. We are already seeing a rapid rise in classes with more than 30 pupils and playground space being sacrificed for classroom portakabins.

Gove, and to some extent Laws too, needs to answer the following questions:

How was a £800m ‘black hole’ created in the free school budget?

What exactly is this extra £800m being spent on? What specific free school projects have gone or are forecast to go over budget, and by how much?

Does this mean that free schools are getting significantly more money per student than other schools?

How is it possible for an education secretary to ‘secretly raid’ a budget – what does that even mean? Who else should have known and approved the spending?

According to the coalition source, “Gove had secretly taken the money from the Basic Need fund for local authorities last December, in the face of stiff opposition from the Lib Dem schools minister David Laws”. So why didn’t Laws – or a ‘coalition insider’ – speak out about it in December when more might have been done to prevent it? Perish the thought that the Lib Dems deliberately held this back to unleash it just before the local and European elections.

Most importantly, Michael Gove needs to tell us how he is going to refund £400m to the Basic Need budget. Because it can’t simply be a case of ‘naughty Michael, you shouldn’t have done that, now let’s carry on as before’. If more school places aren’t created, there will be some areas where children do not have a school to go to.

There are some pretty obvious ways this money can be returned without doing any harm to other important areas.

The free school budget could be cut. The forced academisation programme could (and should) be dropped as it’s incredibly costly – not to mention immoral – to force schools to become academies against the wishes of teachers, governors and parents. Secondary academies do not outperform maintained secondaries and recent research by the Local Schools Network has shown that local authority primaries improve quicker than sponsored primary academies.

What is clear is that this matter cannot rest here; and Labour needs to do more.

Annie Powell is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.