Leading on Free Schools

The news that Nick Clegg’s speech on schooling, scheduled for later this week, has been either leaked or handed out in advance to the press that presumably then ignored an embargo should not come as much of a surprise. Even though Nick Clegg’s speech isn’t to be until Thursday, and was billed as about standards in schools, it would appear to have been communicated to the press further in advance than is usually the case. Either way, one wonders whether his office bothered to consult anyone in the Party with views on education.

After all, it is more than three years since the Liberal Democrat Party Conference at Liverpool passed the following motion about Free Schools:

Conference is concerned by the establishment of academies and free schools under coalition government policy.
Conference re-asserts its commitment to the key principles agreed at the spring 2009 conference in Harrogate in policy paper 89, Equity and Excellence, and specifically that:
i) Local Authorities should retain strategic oversight of the provision of school places funded by the use of public money.
ii) Local Authorities should continue to exercise their arms-length support for all state schools funded wholly or partially with public funds with particular emphasis on their work with 
disadvantaged pupils.

Conference calls on government to ensure that schools remaining within the Local Authority
family are not financially penalised by the creation of academies and specifically:
a) That academies should be required to pay the full cost including administrative overheads for
any services they buy back from the Local Authority.
b) That academies should have only observer status on the Schools Forum as they have placed themselves outside the democratic system for the funding of education.
In relation to ‘free schools’, conference calls on all Liberal Democrats to urge people not to take up this option because it risks:
1. Creating surplus places which is prejudicial to the efficient use of resources in an age of
austerity.
2. Increasing social divisiveness and inequity into a system which is already unfair because
of the multiple tiers and types of schools created by successive Conservative and Labour
governments and thus abandoning our key goal of a high quality education system for all
learners.
3. Depressing educational outcomes for pupils in general.
4. Increasing the existing complexity of school admissions and exclusions.
5. Putting at risk advances made in making appropriate provision for children with special
needs.
6. Putting in jeopardy the programme of improving school buildings.
7. Wasting precious resources, both human and material, at a time when all efforts should be

focused on improving educational outcomes by enabling effective teaching and learning to

take place in good local schools accessible to all.

8. Increasing the amount of discrimination on religious grounds in pupil admissions and the employment of teaching staff, and denying children access to broad and balanced Religious Education about the range of different world views held in society.

That motion was proposed by Cllr Peter Downes of Cambridgeshire, and seconded by myself. As the BBC noted, earlier this week the Minister of State, David Laws, was still taking a different line to that now being espoused by his leader about free schools. So that raises a second issue, about leadership styles. I voted for Nick Clegg in the leadership election because, having been on working parties with both candidates, I admired Nick’s positive attitude to making things happen. But, taken to extremes such a driving force can make others feel left out, as I imagine most of the part’s education lobby are feeling this morning after listening to the BBC news report.

We await the details of the speech to see how far Nick has moved his position within the Party away from both Mr Gove’s and Mr Hunt’s ‘private schools on the rates’ approach to education, and also what justification Nick gives for his change of heart. but, I suppose we must be grateful for any re-think of policy in this area that was never a part of the Coalition Agreement.

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