Throughout this latest, blazing Coalition row over Michael Gove – which is spreading like fire over dry heath and has now ignited the normally harmonious Treasury – the Liberal Democrats have insisted that they support free schools. They argue that it is simply Gove’s ‘zealotry’ in transferring £400 million from the basic need allocation to the free schools project, not the principle of free schools. They are indeed mostly needled by years of working with a man who they find difficult to work with, and whose enthusiasm for certain aspects of education, whether it be free schools or the history curriculum, irritates them. They were also needled by the way his advisers sought to cut them out of the policymaking process (although as Dominic Cummings told Coffee House on Friday, this often needled Downing Street too).

But listen carefully to their protests. The briefings over the weekend and the continuing sniping today contains an important line that shows the Lib Dems are pulling out of the education big tent. Tim Farron was on the Today programme a few minutes ago, arguing that the Conservatives were not addressing the priority, which was ensuring there were sufficient school places. He said some free schools ‘are not really meeting any demand for additional places’.

The briefing at the weekend was that ‘it is nothing short of lunacy to slash the amount of money available for new school places to lavish on free schools’. This means that the Lib Dems now hold the same position as Labour on free schools. They support free schools in areas where there is a shortage of places, which defeats one of the key aims of these schools, which improve (and encourage other local schools to improve too) through competition. It is not that these schools are inherently better than local schools – although they are freed from local education bureaucracy – but that they are driven by competition for pupils to be the best they can, rather than coasting.

It also means that parents, unhappy with the existing provision in their area, cannot set up a free school if sufficient places are already available. The Liberal Democrats want to return the power to bureaucrats who are happy if schools – even schools parents wish they didn’t have to send their children to – are full. And thus Nick Clegg’s party has left the education big tent, even if it doesn’t want to admit it as it fights this feverish coalition battle.

Tags: Education, Free schools, Michael Gove, Nick Clegg, UK politics