Simon Jenkins has written a bizarre piece in the Evening Standard. As well as answering that, I’ll explain a few others things about it. 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?! Simon Jenkins clearly thinks that we did ‘a deal’ with Clegg because we wanted to do this universal free school meals gimmick. He must have missed the news all week. The whole point of what I’ve been saying is that the Department for Education was not told about the universal free school meals announcement by Clegg at his party conference (until hours before it became public) because it was a deal struck in the quad [David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and George Osborne — the coalition’s highest decision making body].
After the announcement we warned repeatedly that the way Clegg was trying to do the gimmick would cause big problems.
Also, his funding numbers were junk. His claims to the media of a Department for Education ‘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. 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 universal free school meals 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 Department for Education had to add to the £150 million? 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 pupil premium uses free school meals 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 Jenkins knew what was going on in the parliamentary press 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 any journalist 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 my former colleague Henry de Zoete.
Understandably, nobody understands what our jobs as special advisers involved. I spent less than 1 per cent of my time dealing with the media. My job was: what are our priorities, what policies can advance them, project manage them through the Department for Education, 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 Simon Jenkins think that me raising this universal free school meals 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 Simon Jenkins 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. Jenkins should focus on those since he clearly does not like Academies.