A few thoughts on free school meals, Ofsted, and an answer to S Jenkins

Simon Jenkins has written a bizarre piece in the Evening Standard, here. As well as answering that, I’ll explain a few others things about it… (See

Unfortunately, he has completely misunderstood the basics of the universal free school meals fiasco.

He writes: ‘Gove decided, by a deal with Nick Clegg, that running every school meant insisting every child have a “proper meal”. The order went out over Christmas. Gove would be first to admit he has never run a whelk stall and was surprised to discover that schools were having trouble becoming Jamie Oliver academies overnight… Comrade Stalin himself would have warmed to the tears of gratitude.’

Where to start?! SJ clearly thinks that we did ‘a deal’ with Clegg because we wanted to do this UFSM gimmick. He must have missed the news all week. The whole point of what I’ve been saying is that a) the DfE was not told about the UFSM announcement by Clegg at his party conference (until hours before it became public) because it was a quad deal; b) after the announcement we  warned repeatedly that the way Clegg was trying to do the gimmick would cause big problems; c) his funding numbers were junk, his claims to the media of a DfE ‘underspend’ were fictitious since we actually had an overspend  of hundreds of millions, and finding the money for the gimmick from our maintenance budget, as we were told to do, would mean fewer collapsing school roofs fixed. We told Clegg these things before he told the media his tale.

When the Select Committee looks at the email traffic between the offices, it will see – and publicly confirm – the accuracy of the above paragraph. It will also show that Clegg’s claims that what I have said were ‘utterly, totally wrong’, and Laws’s claim that I am talking ‘utter balls’, were untrue. (I could prove it with 10 minutes effort now but it will be better to wait for the proper inquiry.)

Also, some basic logic confirms the truth of what I’ve said. Why did Laws have to hand out the money for the UFSM gimmick on the basis of ‘numbers of pupils per LA’? Because there was no time to find out which schools have no kitchen and therefore need the money. Why has the DfE had to add to the £150m? Because the original Clegg announcement was not enough, as we warned (e.g. on 4 December 2013). Why has Clegg had to drop his promise everyone will get a ‘hot’ meal? Because he made that promise without agreement with DfE then was told it was impossible to deliver by September 2014. (And why is David Laws in meetings about the effects on the Pupil Premium? Because they didn’t think before launching the gimmick about the knock-on effects, given the PP uses FSM as its eligibility criterion.)

Jenkins then writes: ‘Worse is the plethora of special advisers whom Cameron has allowed into government. These people have nothing to do except further their boss’s career. They leak and plot and lobby. In Gove’s case a “shadowy army” of schemers have done his reputation harm…’

If SJ knew what was going on in the lobby, he would know that I have consistently and repeatedly said the same thing on and off the record about Gove and the leadership – he would be a bad leader and nobody should encourage the idea. You will not find anybody in the lobby who says I have pushed that silly idea to them – I have knocked it down hundreds of times since 2007. So has Henry de Zoete. Understandably, nobody understands what our jobs were. I spent less than 1% of my time dealing with the media. My job was: what are our priorities, what policies can advance them, project manage them through the DfE, try to suppress the chaos-inducing entropic forces of Westminster/Whitehall. (One of the reasons our team could operate as we did was that MG did not want to be leader and we did not want to be MPs.)

Jenkins then writes: ‘Yet he wants to excuse “his” academies and so-called free schools from the same draconian inspection for discipline and curriculum that he imposes on local authority schools. This is a clear double standard.’

Completely wrong. Not just wrong – the opposite of the truth. The only ‘pressure’ we put on Ofsted was to reform itself quickly to avoid the many cockups. E.g. It is obviously bad for Ofsted to say ‘Outstanding’ then days later the school has a major sex scandal. Our ‘pressure’ on Ofsted was for  Academies and Free Schools to be treated in the same way as others – not the opposite. Why? Nobody in their right mind would think that trying to cover up problems was a successful way to embed the policy. Our main concern about Ofsted from the beginning was the gap between stated policy and actual practice. I think this was a reasonable concern given the evidence. (I will write separately about the Ofsted issue because there are many misunderstandings about it after Wilshaw’s unfortunate interview.)

Does SJ think that me raising this UFSM issue now helps Gove politically? It does not – it angers Clegg’s and Cameron’s team. Why did I do it? Because our team went to the DfE to improve schools. We did not go there to help politicians like Clegg try to buy his way into positions of power by bribing people with taxpayers’ money. We spent a huge amount of time trying to stop gimmicks from all over Whitehall, to limit Whitehall’s interference with schools, and to save taxpayers’ money. We tried to resist the widespread culture among ministers of – ‘I’m making a speech next week, I need a new announcement for the lobby, tell Gove to give me a hundred million for [summer schools, meals, nurseries, insert gimmick as appropriate].’ If Clegg gets a black eye on this gimmick, my hope is that it will be harder for them to push more silly gimmicks on schools over the next year. I will be similarly honest about gimmicks from the Conservatives if they come.

People tell me that SJ is a nice man and the only time I spoke to him at length we had a pleasant chat, but he should do some research before writing his columns – even just reading the papers! – to avoid spreading confusion. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons to disagree with what Gove’s team did or is doing. SJ should focus on those since he clearly does not like Academies.

Note. Below is a transcript of an email exchange between me and the World At One that was played on Radio 4, 11 March 2014. 

WATO: How did the policy come about in the first place?

Me: Clegg’s team tried to persuade us to do it in 2013. We refused. So Clegg said to Cameron in secret before party conferences, ‘you give me this and I’ll give you your marriage tax announcement for Tory conference, Gove refuses to do it so you’ll have to force him.’ The DfE wasn’t told until about an hour or so before the announcement. No policy work was done in advance.

WATO: Did the Department for Education support the policy and did it believe it would work?

Me: Officials in DfE were unanimous that it was a bad gimmick and introduced in a way that makes it hard to avoid implementation chaos. Officials were obviously right.

WATO: What warnings did the Department for Education give about the idea?

Me: We told Clegg a) it was a bad idea in principle as there were much bigger priorities for spending a billion quid; b) if he and DC were determined on it, do not rush it in, it would impose big demands on schools (e.g. new kitchens) at a time when they have a lot of really important changes to adapt to, that we wouldn’t be able to do it sensibly in time, and c) that all the figures bandied about were junk and he should not say them publicly.

WATO: What form did the warnings take? (emails? Meetings? Letters?)

Me: All three.

WATO: Where did the £150m budget for capital spending on kitchens and dining rooms come from?

Me: It was a back of the fag packet number by Clegg’s spin doctors. We told them it was rubbish. It is based on a supposed DfE underspend that did not exist and they were told it did not exist. Because Clegg only thinks about politics – and starts every meeting saying ‘I haven’t been able to read the policy papers but let’s talk about the politics’ – he assumed that our opposition was because it was a Clegg idea but it wasn’t. Our opposition was because it is a dumb idea badly executed that shows why politicians should have less power over schools, and although I had many disagreements with Whitehall officials and the methods of the civil service, this is very firmly the fault of Clegg and NOT CIVIL SERVANTS IN GENERAL AND THE DFE IN PARTICULAR.

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2 thoughts on “A few thoughts on free school meals, Ofsted, and an answer to S Jenkins

  1. I had a lot of respect for Simon Jenkins until I read this. What a way to behave. There’s no way on earth someone starting out in journalism could write like that any advance, SJ is clearly trading on his reputation instead of checking his facts.

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